Loneliness, a public health problem that increases the risk of disease

Loneliness, a public health problem that increases the risk of disease

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Experts consider that unwanted isolation is an ‘epidemic’ that causes cardiovascular and mental illnesses.

In the elderly, loneliness begins, for example, with a fall, retirement or widowhood, which causes social isolation. Photo: Shutterstock.

Different health authorities and neurology experts affirm that the lack of company harms health, including unwanted loneliness can be compared to smoking, obesity or pollution, since it is considered a risk factor for mortality.

In this regard, Dr. Facundo Manes, an Argentine neuroscientist, defines loneliness as “a biological alarm that reminds us that we are social beings.”

Studies show consequences of loneliness on health

The scientific community has proven that loneliness and Social isolation increase the risk of mortality, other cardiovascular diseases, stroke, dementia and sleep problems by around 30%. mental health like depression.

Proof of this is a study recently published in the journal Jama Surgery that even warned that loneliness had a negative influence on the postoperative evolution of older adults.

On the other hand, a 2021 document from the World Health Organization claimed that between 20% and 34% of older people in China, Europe, Latin America and the United States feel lonely.

In this sense, a study published in November found, after studying more than 4,000 older adults, that among patients undergoing urgent surgeries, loneliness was associated with a higher probability of death within 30 days. “The results suggest that loneliness may be a social determinant in the postoperative period,” the researchers noted.

The lack of company kills and makes sick. A 2015 scientific review estimated that both loneliness and Social isolation and living alone, raised the risk of death by 26%, 29%, and 30%, respectively. “Loneliness kills like diseases. And it produces more ailments, as if it were a waterfall”, pointed out Esther Roquer, president of the Geriatrics Society of the Academy of Medical Sciences of Catalonia.

Loneliness affects older adults to a greater extent

It is worth mentioning that in the elderly, loneliness begins, for example, with a fall, retirement or widowhood. For Roquer, fragility marks the turning point towards unwanted loneliness and this increase in Social isolation It leads to a decrease in capacities to carry out common activities.

Poor social relationships have also been associated with a 30% increased risk of serious cardiovascular problems or stroke. A review of studies published in the journal Public Health noted that adults with Social isolation are 2 to 3 times more likely to die after a heart attack, while people with stronger social relationships are 50% more likely to survive.

Importance of doctors taking loneliness into account as a cardiovascular risk factor

Regarding this, María Rosa Fernández, president of the Association of Vascular Risk and Cardiorespiratory Rehabilitation of the Spanish Society of Cardiology, explained how aware people and medical professionals are of the impact of loneliness on cardiovascular health.

“It’s fundamental. A patient who has already suffered an event of this type and lives alone is more likely to suffer problems of this type again. A person with a lack of family support is also more at risk of developing heart failure,” she mentioned.

Refering to mental healthloneliness is linked to bad lifestyle habits, such as increased tobacco or alcohol consumption, and these harmful behaviors are exacerbated, in turn, if one is less exposed to healthy behaviors or health advice as a result of fewer contacts social.

Loneliness: a vicious circle for diseases

The explanation of how loneliness mediates the disease is still unclear, experts admit. But some specialists draw a kind of vicious circle that feeds itself.

One of the hypotheses is that loneliness triggers a neuroendocrine response: “Those who feel lonely or are considered to be socially isolated may show elevated activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, an increased response to chronic stress, elevated blood pressure, and high levels of cortisol in the blood”, points out a recent British study.

It makes sense, Fernández points out: “the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is that it starts up in situations of stress and loneliness causes what causes stress.”

The cardiologist, however, also emphasizes the influence of lifestyles: “All social and psychosocial factors have an impact on cardiovascular health. The exact cause is not known, but the lifestyles are not the same.”

From a psychological perspective, British researchers also stress that loneliness is associated with higher rates of depression and suicide, as well as interrelated behaviors and habits that lead to worse cardiovascular health.

“Both lonely and socially isolated people are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol and make poor dietary choices. They are less likely to leave their homes regularly to exercise and have poor adherence to prescribed medication,” the researchers noted.

It is not that loneliness causes dementia, clarified Dr. Teresa Moreno, coordinator of the Neurogeriatrics Study Group of the Spanish Society of Neurology, but it does accelerate its symptoms.

“There are things that make the symptoms more noticeable and the Social isolation and depression increase the progression of dementia: the more you use your head, the less noticeable the symptoms; Getting together with people, having a social life, decreases them and the longer we can delay these symptoms, the better”, explained the neurologist.

To all these physiological and psychological variables, it is added that isolated people go less to emergency health services and ask for less help. “What we got to see is the tip of the iceberg. Many times, these people are so isolated that they do not reach us. You have to go look for them, ”admitted Roquer.

Loneliness also affects young people

Although loneliness and Social isolation they touch older people more, young people are not exempt from suffering this phenomenon. Several investigations have warned of an association between loneliness in this group and an increase in tobacco consumption.

Experts call for more attention to this phenomenon and therapeutic alternatives to tackle its impact on health. There is no pill or syrup to cure loneliness, but there are strategies to minimize its damage.

Source consulted here.