Loneliness does more than pull on your heart strings -- it may hurt your heart

Research shows that these feelings don’t just cause emotional stress.

May 23, 2018, 10:34 AM

Silent, uncomfortable, forlorn, withdrawn -- these are all feelings likely felt by the lonely.

Research shows that these feelings don’t just cause emotional stress, they are part of a real association between social isolation and negative health outcomes. For the first time, studies are looking at heart failure in lonely people.

Over 6 million people live with heart failure in the United States, with over 960,000 new cases diagnosed each year. By 2030, there may be more than 8 million cases of heart failure.

“One in five Americans over the age of 40 are affected by heart failure,” Dr. Clyde Yancy, American Heart Association (AHA) spokesperson and chief of the cardiology division at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, told ABC News.

It’s a condition that makes the heart unable to pump enough blood to the body, and heart failure already takes up millions of healthcare dollars each year. Research shows that one in four of these 6 million patients with heart failure feel moderate to high levels of social isolation.

PHOTO: A woman sobs in this stock photo.
A woman sobs in this stock photo.
STOCK/Getty Images

Young single women with heart failure were more likely to see themselves as socially isolated, and those with this feeling of social disconnection are more likely to require more healthcare spending than a typical patient with heart failure.

“Moderate” social isolation was linked to a 16 percent increased risk in outpatient visits, and “high” social isolation boosted that increased risk up to 26 percent. These patients also have over three and a half times the risk of death, a 68 percent increase in the risk of being hospitalized, and a 57 percent increased risk of an emergency room visit when compared to other heart failure patients.

Treating heart failure patients, the study says, is about more than their body. Asking patients about their subjective feelings of seclusion and loneliness can be important in identifying those who are at a higher risk.

"Those who are most successful in taking care of their disease are those who have a partner at their side, or a team, so they are not going about their disease by themselves. A team is important in regards to maintaining hope and preventing medical errors at home, and those with a team seemingly do better,” Yancy said.

Intervening early in the course of the disease to reconnect the patient to their community may improve outcomes in those who feel alone.

Yancy agreed that awareness of loneliness is the first step, and an increase in support networks should be available for those patients to aid in their healthcare success.

Eric M. Ascher, DO, is a third-year family medicine resident from New York working in the ABC News Medical Unit.