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Loneliness Raises Risk of Heart Disease, Stroke

The findings make a strong case for the connection between mental and physical health.

Heart attacks, clogged arteries, stroke are health risks we associate with things like smoking or obesity, and for good reason: they increase your risk of suffering one of these ailments. But according to new research, being lonely does too.

Being lonely or socially isolated increases your risk of coronary heart disease and stroke by 50%, the study found, which is on par with light cigarette smoking, anxiety and stress, the LA Times reported.

The study took place in Europe, the U.S., Japan and Australia. Participants were asked questions about their support network, how frequently they saw friends and acquaintances, the quality of their social relationships and how their loneliness felt.

The situations varied greatly -- some people had physical disabilities that prevented them from getting out of the house often, some suffered from mental health issues, some had a spouse or close family member that died, and some were surrounded by friends and family but said they could not escape their feelings of isolation, the Times reported.

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One complication: people who suffer from the types of situations most participants described are also more likely to smoke, drink to excess, over-eat, or not eat enough. So it can be difficult to understand whether loneliness contributes to, is a symptom of, or is the result of poor health.

The study makes a good case for the importance of mental, as well as physical, health, and how the two are connected.

Psychologists Julianne Holt-Lundstad and Timothy B. Smith of Brigham Young University advocate for physicians to ask their patients about their support networks and their feelings of loneliness and isolation. If patients are struggling, physicians can refer them to mental health specialists.

Even more important may be the preservation of relationships with family and friends. The effectiveness of family and close friends in supporting our well-being is hard to beat, even by a professional.