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Dr. Zorba Paster: Loneliness is risk factor for heart attacks

Dr. Zorba Paster

Loneliness is awful. I was very lonely as a child – as an only child. My mom would have what we modern parents would call “playdates,” but that wasn’t the same as having a sibling to romp around with.

I was small, geeky, no good at any sport with a ball, which put me in the “last to be picked for a team” group in elementary school. Lonely was my middle name.

That is, until I went to University of Wisconsin-Madison for college. That was, for me, a game changer, indeed.

But for some, that type of turnaround never happens. They are always lonely.

There are factors behind this for sure – depression, alcoholism, PTSD, anxiety – I could go on and on. The bottom line is that it’s hard for some to make friends and keep them.

There is something about having someone to talk to when you’re celebrating something or just stressed out that makes us feel better. But it also might help with something else – it might prevent heart attacks.

That’s right. New research from the British Medical Journal shows that the good feeling in your heart – and I don’t mean the lub-dub, lub-dub of your physical heart, but the feeling of your heart and soul – may reduce heart attack and stroke risk by 30 percent. That’s an eye opener, isn’t it?

Statisticians looked at more than 25 longitudinal studies, some going on for nearly 20 years, to see what novel risk factors might factor in heart attacks. We know the usual – smoking, obesity, couch-potato lifestyle, high blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. But that doesn’t explain all heart attacks. If we add all the “usual” factors together, we still don’t have all the answers.

So they went back into the data looking at other stuff – social isolation and loneliness being one. They found this out using questionnaires asking people if they were lonely, lived alone, had a social support network, someone to watch their back, things like that.

They found that social isolation was nearly as much of a risk factor as cholesterol. The most socially isolated people were 30 percent more likely to die prematurely from a heart attack than those with friends and family.

Yet when patients come into my office, I might ask them how their family is doing but do I ever ask them if they have an active social life? How’s their marriage? Do their kids love them? Do they go out with friends and do stuff?

If they have depression, you bet I ask them that. But what if they appear “normal” to me? Nope. I must admit I skip those questions, and I bet that at least 90 percent of my colleagues do, too.

Why is this? Perhaps because we were not trained to ask these questions, or they’re not on our list. We ask about diet and exercise all the time but social stuff takes a back seat. And that’s wrong.

This is not an absolutely new idea. It’s been around for a while. We know that people who are socially isolated often eat more, exercise less, stay on the couch more, get up and go less. Some studies show that being alone even affects the immune system. One thing is for sure: Low self-esteem goes hand-in-hand with social isolation.

My spin: We all need someone to lean on, to cover our back, to talk to, to laugh with. It gives us joy. And this study shows it can give us more life, too. Stay well.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, professor at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and host of the public radio program “Zorba Paster on Your Health,” which airs at noon Wednesdays on 91.1 FM, and noon Sundays on 91.9 FM. His column appears twice a month in The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at askzorba@doctorzorba.com. He loves mail.

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