Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Written by Carol Marak, founder of the Elder Orphan Facebook Group

Solo living may not be detrimental for one’s heart claims a recent study in 2019 which  tracked 32,0000 men and women for five years from 45 countries. All were living with stable coronary artery disease. About 11 percent of the participants lived alone and researchers determined the lifestyle status to be a non-issue. 

After accounting for age, sex, smoking status, and diabetes – the results were quite surprising since the scientists found those living alone had no higher risk for heart attacks, strokes, heart failure or death.

The research did see a difference between men and women. Men living alone had a 17 percent higher risk for major adverse cardiovascular events due to having lost their social support through divorce or breakup.

They found the women living alone tended to have a lower risk of heart attack compared with women or men living with others. It could be that women manage the household and assume a nurturing role and may develop superior self-care skills than their male counterparts, researchers perceived. Women socialized differently than men and may form stronger social networks and relied less on spousal support compared with men.

The patients aged 75 and older who lived alone tended to have lower risks for heart attack and stroke, whereas people under age 65 who lived alone tended to have higher risks. The authors suggested maybe it’s because the younger individuals social interactions may be more pressured, resulting in poor health behavior, while patients above the age 75 living independently may be relatively healthy.

Loneliness is Worse for the Heart

Living alone does not bear a devastating factor on heart health but feeling lonely does. It was a study by the Copenhagen University Hospital that found the negative effects of loneliness and lacking social support linking to poorer health outcomes in heart patients.

Loneliness is a strong predictor of premature death, worse mental health, and lower quality of life in patients with cardiovascular disease, and a much stronger predictor than living alone.

It included nearly 13,500 Dutch patients treated across five heart centers, who were asked questions about their physical and mental health, as well as their lifestyle and social networks.

Patients who reported having no one to talk to in times of need had roughly twice the mortality risk compared to those who had support. Individuals who felt lonely were also three times as likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression and had a significantly lower quality of life than those who had support.

The two questions about social support provide a lot of information about the likelihood of having poor health outcomes.

  • “Do you have someone to talk to when you need it?” 
  • “Do you feel alone sometimes even though you want to be with someone?”

Researchers think using these simple questions may help physicians identify heart patients who face increased cardiovascular risk due to a lack of support.

Alone and Lonely?

Loneliness is a complex and powerful emotion. All of us have experienced some degree of abandonment, if only for a short time, and remember the painful and scary feeling that goes along with it. Whenever we are reminded of this feeling we get a twinge of abandonment distress that’s experienced as loneliness.

Things to do

Accept loneliness to be a feeling, not a fact. Something from the past has triggered a memory of that feeling, not because you are isolated and alone. Our brain pays attention to pain and danger, and scary feelings; that’s when loneliness gets our attention. Realize that you are having this feeling and accept it without overreacting.

Avoid reacting by withdrawing into yourself, your thoughts, and your lonely feelings. Anticipation of loneliness might motivate you to reach out and cultivate friendships, which is the healthiest thing to do.

Avoid becoming too self-centered. Stay away from negative self talk. Don’t make assumptions about what other people think about you.

Healthy interactions with friends are good, make more effort to connect with others, initiate conversation and one on one time even when loneliness and depression feel very heavy. It will be worthwhile.

Focus on the needs and feelings of others and less on your loneliness. Don’t spend a lot of time focusing on yourself and feeling hopeless. Instead be grateful for the beauty of nature that surrounds you. As you pass people, silently wish them a good day and good health.

Connect and spend time with peers. Join groups of knitters, hikers or other hobbies you enjoy. This makes it much easier to identify groups with which you have something in common, a natural foundation for friendship.

Be proud each time you show up and think of it as an adventure in social bonding. Be curious about and interested in others. You have the power to offer loving kindness and generosity of spirit. It isn’t instinctual to be kind to strangers but it is a choice. Lastly, be persistent.

Connect with Peers Living with Heart Disease

Lifestyle Changes for Heart Attack Prevention

Stop smoking

If you smoke, quit. Commit to quit. Heart Health News offers these tips:

Visit Quit Smoking for plans, tips and tools to help you quit.

Choose good nutrition

A healthy diet is the top defense to fight cardiovascular disease. The food you eat (and the amount) can affect risk factors like cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. Choose foods rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients but are lower in calories. Eat mostly vegetables, fruits, and whole grains and poultry, fish, legumes, nontropical vegetable oils, and nuts.

Learn how to eat healthy

High blood cholesterol

Fat in the arteries can trigger a heart attack or stroke. Reduce your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol and get up and move around. Consult with your doctor about medication to get the numbers down. Here are the numbers:

Total Cholesterol
Your total cholesterol score is calculated using the following: HDL + LDL + 20 percent of your triglyceride level.

Low-density-lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – the “bad” cholesterol
A low LDL cholesterol level is considered good for your heart. However, your LDL number should no longer be the main factor in guiding treatment to prevent heart attack and stroke, according to the American Heart Association. For patients taking statins, the guidelines say they no longer need to get LDL cholesterol levels down to a specific target number. A diet high in saturated and trans fats raises LDL cholesterol.

High-density-lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol – the “good” cholesterol
The higher levels are better. Low HDL cholesterol puts you at higher risk for heart disease. People with high blood triglycerides usually also have lower HDL cholesterol. Genetic factors, type 2 diabetes, smoking, being overweight and a sedentary lifestyle all play into lowering the HDL (good) cholesterol.

Triglyceride is the most common type of fat in the body. Normal triglyceride levels vary by age and sex. A high triglyceride level combined with low HDL cholesterol or high LDL cholesterol is associated with atherosclerosis, the buildup of fatty deposits in artery walls.

Manage emotional stress

Look after your emotions

Some emotional and social factors, like depression, being socially isolated or not having social support, can affect your recovery after a heart attack or stroke, and your future heart health. Take care of your emotional and mental health as well.

Use this simple emotional health self-assessment checklist to help you monitor how you’re feeling.

It’s important to speak to your doctor and get help as soon as possible if you’re concerned about your mental health.

Learn about depression, anxiety and social isolation. Read the Snug Develop Your Support System Guide for more ways to create and build healthy social ties.

5 Things to Do Every Day to Keep Your Heart Healthy

  1. Eat healthy fats, NOT trans fats. We need saturated and polyunsaturated and unsaturated fats in our diet but not trans fat. Here’s a list of foods that contain trans fat. TIP: Read the labels on all foods. Trans fat appears on the ingredients list as partially hydrogenated oils. Look for 0 percent trans fat. 
  2. Practice good dental hygiene, especially flossing your teeth each day. Dental health is a good indication of overall health, including your heart, because those who have periodontal (gum) disease often have the same risk factors for heart disease. 
  3. Get enough sleep. Sleep is an essential part of keeping your heart healthy. If you don’t sleep enough, you may be at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease. One study of 3,000 adults over the age of 45 found that those who slept fewer than six hours per night were about twice as likely to have a stroke or heart attack as people who slept six to eight hours per night. TIP: Make sleep a priority. Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep most nights. 
  4. Don’t sit for too long at one time. Sitting for long periods of time (especially when traveling) increases your risk of a blood clot. TIP: Experts say it’s important to move throughout the day. Park farther away from the office, take a few shorter walks throughout the day and/or use a standing workstation. And exercise on most days. 
  5. Avoid secondhand smoke. The risk of developing heart disease is about 25 to 30 percent higher for people who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or work. And nonsmokers who have high blood pressure or high blood cholesterol have an even greater risk of developing heart disease when they’re exposed to secondhand smoke. This is because the chemicals emitted from cigarette smoke promote the development of plaque buildup in the arteries. TIP: Be firm with smokers that you do not want to be around environmental smoke.

Before eating that high fat, high sugar dessert, remember that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women. You can prevent heart disease and other chronic illnesses by paying attention to the risk factors, taking medications, and following your doctor’s orders. 

Your heart works hard for you every second of every day. Return the favor by treating it well with the tips in this guide.