Effect of Social Isolation on Elderly
Loneliness, lack of emotional support and lack of companionship or social support can leave elderly men and women vulnerable to heart problems, according to new research.
Dara Sorkin, a PhD candidate of the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues found that for every unit increase in loneliness as measured among older adults in their study, there was a threefold increase in the odds of being diagnosed with a heart condition. Their findings were published in the December 2002 issue of the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine
Units of lonliness were measured using information from a loneliness survey, during which the adults agreed or disagreed strongly with statements like "I can't find companionship when I want it."
The researchers used similar information to calculate each adult's perceived emotional support and social support or companionship. Every unit increase in perceived emotional support and companionship was associated with a 97% and 91% decrease, respectively, in the odds of having a heart condition.
Although previous researchers have noted links between social isolation and cardiovascular disease, few have examined the direct correlation between the subjective feeling of "loneliness" and the medical condition of heart disease, said the researchers.
"Moreover, with few exceptions, researchers generally have not distinguished between two underlying social deficits that give rise to loneliness - specifically, unmet needs for emotional support and unmet needs for companionship," Sorkin observed.
The health effects of social isolation may be especially important among the elderly, since older adults commonly experience disruption of their personal relationships by death or illness or may be removed from their social networks when they move into nursing homes or other managed care facilities.
Sorkin and her coauthors surveyed 180 elderly men and women ranging in age from 58 to 90, asking them to rate their level of loneliness, the availability of emotional support and companionship in their lives and the number of individuals that they could turn to for either support or companionship. Sixty-four percent of the participants were single, widowed or divorced, and slightly less than half of the individuals lived alone.
The participants also received a battery of medical tests for cardiovascular disease factors such as high cholesterol. The researchers conducted in-person interviews with the participants to assess depression and health behaviors such as smoking and lack of exercise.
Along with the significant correlation among loneliness, lack of emotional support and lack of companionship and heart disease, the authors found that levels of support and companionship were also significantly related to loneliness itself.
Having just one person around for emotional support seemed to be enough to reduce the risk of heart disease, while the healthy effects of social support required relationships with multiple individuals, according to the authors.
Despite these connections, Sorkin and colleagues were not able to identify any possible mechanisms by which feelings of loneliness could lead to heart problems, such as evidence that loneliness contributes to unhealthy behaviors like smoking or physical problems like high blood pressure.
The researchers suggest that further research on the link between loneliness and heart disease will benefit from considering how emotional support and companionship each contribute to the overall feeling of loneliness.