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Can being lonely break your heart?

By Darcie Fisher, Tufts Medical Center Correspondent 

Poor Diet. Lack of Exercise. Genetics. Extra pounds. Everyone knows these are contributing factors to developing cardiac issues, but you might be surprised to learn that loneliness can also lead to heart disease. We sat down with Tufts Medical Center cardiologist Brian Downey, MD from the CardioVascular Center to learn more.

Loneliness is typically thought of as a mental health disorder. Can you explain the link it has to developing heart issues?

“Isolation can lead to a lot of bad habits where people just aren’t as active as they should be,” said Dr. Downey. “Often times we see their diet is different and they’re not eating as well as they should. They have weight gain and some develop diabetes and hypertension. We’re seeing a lot of that over the last six to 12 months.”

In other words, you’re seeing an increase in cardiac issues because of the COVID-19 pandemic? 

“We definitely are seeing an uptick in cardiac problems this past year,” said Dr Downey. “People who live alone are obviously the most isolated. There have been some recent studies looking at outcomes over the last year and there’s roughly a 10-15 percent increase in people dying from cardiac disease in 2020 compared with the year before.” Dr. Downey said he is seeing an increase in his own clinic of patients with new cardiac issues and both men and women are being affected.

Loneliness can lead to depression which is also a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Can you explain why?

“There’s definitely a lot of data that depression is underdiagnosed in patients with heart disease and that it can lead to worse outcomes for people with heart problems,” said Dr. Downey. “I can see, especially right after a new diagnosis of cardiac issues, that people have an altered sense of what their lives will be like. That can, and does, lead to depression for many.”

What do you suggest people who are socially isolated during these times do to beat the blues, and in turn improve their heart health?

“I can think of at least two of my patients who, in addition to being isolated and lonely, have gone through massive losses with family members dying from COVID-19,” said Dr. Downey. “Layering the grieving process on top of isolation and the suboptimal lifestyle that comes with isolation has been very hard for them.”  

Dr. Downey encourages his patients to find more ways to be active, even when many of us are spending much more time at home. “There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach because we all have different interests. For some people it can be as easy as choosing to take the stairs instead of the elevator. I also suggest taking up a new hobby which you enjoy and gets you engaged with other people, even if only virtually for now.”

The American Heart Association has more information regarding the effects loneliness can have on your heart here.

Posted February 2021 

The above content is provided for educational purposes by Tufts Medical Center. It is free for educational use. For information about your own health, contact your physician.