Being alone can break your heart—literally.
People who lack a strong network of friends and family are at greater risk of developing—and dying from—heart disease, research shows. According to some studies, the risk of solitude is comparable to that posed by high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and even smoking.
Experts haven’t pinpointed exactly how social networks protect against heart disease, but there are a number of probable explanations. People who are socially isolated are more likely to drink, smoke, and get less exercise. And once someone has heart disease, friends and family often provide key support, such as picking up prescriptions, encouraging exercise, cooking healthy meals, and helping with household chores.
While that everyday help is important, it’s not the whole story. In recent years, researchers have begun to unravel the cardiovascular effects of social isolation, and they’ve discovered that feeling alone may hurt the heart even more than actually being alone.
“We started looking at social isolation about 20 years ago, and we found fairly quickly that objective social isolation in everyday life isn’t as important as perceived social isolation,” says John Cacioppo, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. “And there’s a term for perceived social isolation: It’s loneliness.”
What we call loneliness—the feeling that you have no one to turn to, that no one understands you—is a form of stress. And if it becomes chronic, it can wreak havoc on your blood vessels and heart.