Americans Don't Know Social Isolation Is a Heart Health Risk

Experiencing social isolation and mental health struggles can increase your risk of heart disease — and many Americans are unaware of this fact, according to a new survey.

While most individuals know that stress levels, exercise, and diet all have an impact on heart health, a new survey reveals that the majority of adults in the United States don’t know that social isolation and mental health struggles also play an important role.

The survey, commissioned by El Camino Health and conducted by Ipsos, found that two-thirds of Americans are unaware that social isolation is linked to heart disease. This is despite a 2022 report from the American Heart Association, which found that social isolation and loneliness pose a 29% increased risk for heart attack and/or death from heart disease and a 32% increased risk for stroke.

“As more and more people experience social isolation, loneliness and mental health struggles, it is important to recognize that risk factors for heart disease go beyond high blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels,” says Frederick St. Goar, M.D., the medical director at El Camino Health's Norma Melchor Heart & Vascular Institute. “While it is vital to be proactive about your physical health, preventing heart disease requires a holistic approach that encompasses social and emotional well-being as well."

The new survey also found that roughly half of Americans identified mental health issues as a risk factor despite most recognizing nutrition (78%), exercise (81%), and stress (82%) as heart health factors. The 2022 report meanwhile found a two-way relationship between social isolation and mental health risk factors — determining that those who were socially isolated were more likely to experience depression, and those with depression were more likely to be socially isolated.

"Social isolation impacts the development and progression of cardiovascular disease through a variety of mechanisms, including leading to increased stress and unhealthy lifestyle choices," St. Goar tells Healthnews. "Social isolation can also have a dramatic effect on hormonal changes and whole body inflammation which, along with stress induced hypertension and elevated blood sugar, are major contributors to cardiovascular disease."

The survey results are based on responses from 1,021 U.S. adults aged 18 and older who answered an online poll between February 1 and 4, 2024.

These findings are particularly relevant given that a 2018 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than one in five U.S. adults said they often or always felt lonely or socially isolated, while a 2023 Meta-Gallup survey found that nearly one in four adults around the world reported feeling very or fairly lonely.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among adults in the U.S.

Just as there are preventative measures individuals can take to improve their diet, exercise habits, and stress levels in order to improve heart health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists ways to avoid social isolation and the toll it takes on heart health.

This includes:

  • Investing time in nurturing relationships.

  • Exploring ways to meet new people, like joining a club or taking a class.

  • Sharing things you already do (like exercising or having a meal) with a friend — or doing new activities with them.

  • Finding ways to be responsive, supportive, and grateful to others.

  • Reducing practices that lead to feelings of disconnection from others, such as excessive social media use.

  • Talking to a health care provider if you are concerned about stress, loneliness, and social isolation to ensure you are taking care of your mental health.

“When it comes to heart health, the mind-body connection is very important," St. Goar says. "I’ve been providing cardiovascular care in our community for over 30 years and have a lot of patients who are now in their late 80s and 90s. What I have seen is a consistent theme where patients who remain physically active and emotionally and socially engaged are the individuals who not only live longer, but thrive in their later years."

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