Your empty social calendar could be a real heartbreaker: Spending too much time alone can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke, according to new research from the University of York.
The researchers crunched the data from 19 studies that looked at loneliness and isolation, and the subsequent health risks.
Each study identified what qualified as “loneliness” or “isolation” in different ways. Some asked participants to rate how alone they felt in the past day or week. Other research asked participants to describe the strength and availability of their friendships.
They discovered that people who were less connected to others were 29 per cent more likely to have a heart attack and 32 per cent more likely to suffer a stroke than people who had more social interactions and relationships.
And the heart risks are greatest for people who are bothered by their lack of connections, rather than those who enjoy the solitary time alone, says lead study author Nicole Valtorta, Ph.D.(c).
For instance, a guy who moves to a new city and leaves behind his close-knit group of coworkers may be at a greater chance of heart problems than the man who chooses to always work from home.
So how exactly does loneliness lead to heart attack or stroke? For one, it messes with your sleep, says Valtorta.
When you’re surrounded by people you know and trust, you can sleep peacefully. When you don’t have a secure social circle to protect you, you may be “on alert” more often, listening and looking out for dangers. This may affect your ability to sleep, according to research from the University of Chicago.
Poor sleep can weaken your body’s ability to repair damage and function properly, which can stress your heart over the years, says Valorta.
Loneliness and isolation can also lead to depression and anxiety, both of which have been linked to buildup of plaque in your arteries.
The good news, though, is adding any type of human interaction to your day can help minimize the effects.
That includes reaching out to people using technology, though it’s unclear if things like texting or Skyping are as beneficial as face-to-face contact, Valorta says.
Fitting in other kinds of interpersonal contact can help reduce your feelings of isolation, too. Go to the cashier instead of the self-checkout line. Chat with your neighbor at the mailbox.
If you are typically a social guy, but find yourself without meaningful connections at the moment, try to build your circle. Join a summer sports league, or take a class at a community college.