Loneliness may the increase risk of heart disease in diabetes patients, according to new research .
Scientists have found being lonely to be a bigger risk factor for coronary heart disease – a condition where the blood vessels supplying the heart are narrowed or blocked – than diet, exercise, smoking and depression.
The researchers said their findings, published in the European Heart Journal, highlight the importance of meaningful social relationships to stay healthy.
Study author Professor Lu Qi, of Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans, said: “The quality of social contact appears to be more important for heart health in people with diabetes than the number of engagements
“We should not downplay the importantance of loneliness on physical and emotional health.
“I would encourage patients with diabetes who feel lonely to join a group or class and try to make friends with people who have shared interests.”
Researchers studied data from the UK Biobank – an online database of medical and lifestyle records from more than half a million Britons – involving more than 18,000 adults aged between 37 to 73.
These people had diabetes but no heart disease at the start of the 10 year-long study.
The researchers used questionnaires to assess loneliness and other factors that may affect relationships such as body mass index (BMI), physical activity, diet, alcohol, smoking, and medications, blood pressure, cholesterol and control of blood sugar.
Over the course of more than a decade, more than 3,000 people developed heart disease, which included coronary heart disease or stroke.
The researchers found those who scored the highest in loneliness had a 26% greater risk of heart disease, compared to people with lower scores.
The team also found loneliness to be a bigger risk factor for heart disease than diet, exercise, smoking and depression – but showed a weaker influence when compared to kidney function, cholesterol and BMI.
Professor Qi said: “Loneliness ranked higher as a predisposing factor for cardiovascular disease than several lifestyle habits.
“We also found that for patients with diabetes, the consequence of physical risk factors (i.e. poorly controlled blood sugar, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking and poor kidney function) was greater in those who were lonely compared to those who were not.”
“The findings suggest that asking patients with diabetes about loneliness should become part of standard assessment, with referral of those affected to mental health services.”