Loneliness should, therefore, be regarded as a “legitimate health risk” in people who have a serious illness, researchers said.
The study, published in the journal Heart, found lonely women were nearly three times as likely to die after a year of being discharged, and lonely men were more than twice as likely to have died, compared to those who weren’t lonely.
The findings reinforce the fact loneliness can have a very real, and serious, physical impact on sufferers – a previous study suggested loneliness is as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Loneliness is rife in the UK. In a typical week, almost 2.6 million people aged 65 and over speak to three or fewer people they know, according to Age UK, with more than 225,000 going a week without speaking to anyone. And that’s not factoring in the 40% of young people aged 16-24 who also experience it.
For the study, researchers looked at the one-year health outcomes of patients admitted to a heart centre with either ischaemic (coronary) heart disease, abnormal heart rhythm, heart failure or valve disease, over the course of a year in 2013-14. Most of them (70%) were men, and their average age was 66.
After being discharged from the centre, 13,443 people (53% of the total) completed questionnaires on their physical health, psychological wellbeing and quality of life, as well as their levels of anxiety and depression.
They were also asked about health behaviours – including smoking, drinking and how often they took their prescribed medicines. National data were used to find out if they lived alone or with other people.
Overall, the study found those who said they felt lonely were nearly three times as likely to be anxious and depressed and to report a significantly lower quality of life as those who said they didn’t feel lonely.
One year later, the researchers checked national registry data to see what had happened to the patients’ cardiac health, as well as how many of them had died. They found that irrespective of the diagnosis, loneliness was associated with significantly poorer physical health after a year.
After taking account of potentially influential factors, such as health behaviours, the research found lonely women were nearly three times as likely to have died after a year and lonely men were more than twice as likely to have died, compared to those who didn’t feel lonely.
Although living alone wasn’t associated with feeling lonely, it was associated with a higher (39%) risk of poor heart health among men. Separation, divorce or the death of a partner may disadvantage men more, suggest the researchers.
“The findings are in line with previous research, suggesting that loneliness is associated with changes in cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and immune function as well as unhealthy lifestyle choices, which impact negative health outcomes,” said researchers.
There are also indications that the burden of loneliness and social isolation is growing, they said, adding: “Public health initiatives should therefore aim at reducing loneliness.”
In response to the research, Kalpa Kharicha, head of innovation, policy and research for Campaign to End Loneliness, told HuffPost UK: “After cardiac surgery, many patients will feel vulnerable and need support.
“Asking a patient when they’re discharged if they live alone can be useful – but it’s important they’re also asked if they feel lonely. Living alone is an objective measure, whereas loneliness is subjective, and a lot harder to recognise.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.