2020 has been a year like no other — from mask mandates and school closures to statewide lockdowns and safer-at-home practices that have kept us all isolated for months on end. It’s been quite a ride and it’s not over yet.
While these measures may have been meant to keep us safe, for many, the loneliness and social isolation that comes with them has had a major impact on our mental and physical health — a fact that is especially true for older adults.
Yet, while it’s no secret that many have suffered, according to a brand-new study, men and women might not be suffering equally, at least when it comes to their hearts…
The differing effects of social isolation
The research, performed at the University of British Columbia delved into the biomarkers of longevity and how loneliness can affect them at differing levels in men versus women.
To do this, the team analyzed the social ties of over 28,000 adults between the ages of 45 and 85 and compared biomarkers to the level of isolation of the participants.
And here’s what they found…
For middle-aged to older women, social isolation can be a short road to high blood pressure!
The researchers discovered that women who lived alone, engaged in fewer than three social activities a month, or had a small social network (fewer than 85 contacts) had higher odds of hypertension. Widows were even found to have the strongest likelihood of hypertension across all female categories.
Now, here’s where the gender difference comes in…
For men, the high blood pressure picture wasn’t just different, it was pretty much the exact opposite!
Single men who shared a home with others and had the largest social network had the highest risk of high blood pressure. On the other hand, men that were more socially isolated, lived alone and had smaller social networks had lower blood pressure.
A protective effect for women
Basically, the researchers found that while social isolation isn’t an issue for men’s heart health, women need regular social participation to keep their hearts healthy.
In fact, the link between social isolation and hypertension was so strong in women that principal investigator Annalijn Conklin, assistant professor in the faculty of pharmaceutical sciences at UBC and researcher with the Centre for Health Evaluation and Outcome Sciences, had this to say:
“Among women, the increase in blood pressure that was associated with the lack of social ties was similar to that seen with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory use, increased sodium diets, pollution or weight gain.”
That’s right — if you’re a woman, simply not socializing enough can put your heart at as much risk as if you put on weight, regularly take medications with cardiovascular side effects or eat a lot of salt.
She went on to say, “This represents a significant women-specific risk factor for heart disease or stroke.”
And when you take the dangers of high blood pressure caused by isolation in conjunction with the fact that previous research has found that loneliness is the largest known risk factor for mortality (equal only to smoking) in older adults, this study is a wake-up call for women everywhere.
It’s a big flashing warning sign that if you want to protect your heart and your life, your social life matters!
So, get out there and find ways to spend more time with others, even if it’s over FaceTime or Zoom.
Set up regular calls with friends and family, get together for a Zoom dinner, or do a crossword puzzle together. Consider volunteering for a local organization that may need someone to help with phone calls or mail — tasks that involve you with others from the safety of your own home.
It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you’re doing it with someone else.
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