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Loneliness increases risk of cardiovascular disease in older people: study

Loneliness and social isolation can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease in older people, new research has found.

The study of 11,498 Australian men and women over the age of 70, which was co-founded by the Heart Foundation, looked at how social health affects our cardiovascular health, examining the 12 risk factors that contribute to cardiovascular disease (CVD).

Risk factors included insufficient physical activity, high blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose, smoking, depression and being overweight or obese.

They found that loneliness was associated with a greater risk of CVD and that those who did little or no physical activity, or were depressed, were more likely to have poor social health.

“Good social health means you are less likely to have cardiovascular disease, or other serious illness,” said lead researcher Dr Freak-Poli, from Monash University.

“We are the first to assess and show that poor social health is linked to a greater estimated CVD risk in older adults.”

People with low levels of physical activity, and depression, were the only risk factors consistently linked to all three components of social health – social isolation, loneliness and social support.

Men were less likely to feel lonely than women, but were more likely to be socially isolated and not socially supported.

Those people with good social health were less likely to have multiple risk factors for heart disease, lowering their risk of having a heart attack or stroke within 10 years.

It is estimated that one in four Aussies experience feelings of loneliness and at least 13 per cent of older adults over 65 experience loneliness, with those over 75 more likely to be lonely than any other age group.

With the pandemic lockdowns in force across Australia, Heart Foundation interim chief executive Professor Garry Jennings said this large study is a timely reminder that our mental health has an influence on cardiovascular disease.

“A 2020 survey in response to COVID-19 restrictions found that 45 per cent of respondents either agreed (26 per cent) or strongly agreed (19 per cent) that they often felt lonely," he said.

“Exercise can play a key a role in treating depression, improving mood and decreasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke. If you are feeling lonely or depressed, you should talk to your doctor or reach out to family and friends.”

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