An Australian study has found that older adults with poor social health—who also have low social support and are isolated—were 42 percent more likely to develop cardiovascular disease (CVD), and twice as likely to die from it.
The study’s authors define low social support as having a circle of four or less relatives or close friends to reach out to for help or discuss private matters.
Social isolation includes engaging in community activities less than once a month and having contact with four or less relatives and close friends per month.
Lead author and Heart Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow Rosanne Freak-Poli from the Monash School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, said changing demographics may be increasing cardiovascular ailments such as heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke.
“The ageing population presents a challenge of supporting older adults to maintain a healthy, fulfilling, independent and community-dwelling life for longer,” Freak-Poli said in a press release.
In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic which has given rise to lockdowns and physical isolation measures, the long term impacts of those restrictions were also considered.
Heart Foundation interim CEO, Professor Garry Jennings said there was a need to look out for older Australians with poor social health as they were at risk.
“Family and social support or connection with the community are not always constants in people’s lives. As our understanding of the role these factors play in cardiovascular health grows, so must our efforts to address them by helping older Australians stay connected and well supported,” Jennings said.
Freak-Poli said that further research is needed to make sense of the issues crucial to mental and physical health.
“To develop effective preventive interventions and guide cost-effective policy, a clear understanding of the extent to which social isolation, social support, and loneliness each influence CVD is required,” Freak-Poli said.
“And how social health measures interact is important for identifying the most vulnerable populations for intervention.”
Asides from heart disease, social isolation has been linked to mental illness, emotional distress, suicide, the development of dementia, premature death, poor sleep, and lowered immunity, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
The organisation recommends having paid work, caring for others, engaging in volunteer work, maintaining active memberships of sporting or community organisations as important safeguards against social isolation.