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Stay Social & Live Longer

Extended Isolation Is a Killer

Stay Social & Live Longer

By Jessica Scarpati –

Is a lousy social life aging you? Yes, and more than you might realize.

A recent study from the Mayo Clinic found that adults over age 50 who were socially isolated―meaning they lived alone and rarely or never talked on the phone with friends and family, spent time with loved ones or participated in activities outside the home ― were more likely to show signs that their cells looked biologically older than the candles on their birthday cake would suggest.

More troubling, researchers found that absence doesn’t just make the heart grow fonder. It also becomes sicker, along with other serious health problems. After 280,000 men and women over age 50 had their health tracked for three years, the most solitary people were also the most likely to die from cardiovascular disease and other causes within a two-year follow-up period.

“This study highlights the critical interplay between social isolation, health and aging,” reported Amir Lerman, MD, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic and senior author of the paper. “Social isolation combined with demographic and medical conditions appears to be a significant risk factor for accelerated aging. But we also know that people can change their behavior—have more social interaction, exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, stop smoking and get adequate sleep, etc. Making and sustaining these changes may go a long way toward improving overall health.”

Aging is a highly complex process, with many factors playing a role in a person’s lifespan. Some are well-studied, such as genetics, diet and exercise. It’s been known that social isolation and loneliness also take a toll on our physical health, but the exact reasons for it are equally complicated.

In some cases, those social connections have a direct influence on longevity. Someone who hates going to the doctor might be persuaded by a loving spouse to finally get that checkup. Another example is a person who has a stroke while attending church is likely to receive emergency care far sooner than someone home alone. But for reasons science is still working to understand, the body’s biology can play a role as well.

“Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases,” Steve Cole, Ph.D., director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells the National Institute on Aging. “The biology of loneliness can accelerate the buildup of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body.”

The Mayo Clinic’s study relied on artificial intelligence to estimate a person’s “cardiac age” based on their electrocardiogram, or EKG, readings. For instance, someone who is 65 years old might have the heart function of a typical 80-year-old, resulting in a 15-year cardiac “age gap.” The clinic’s researchers then compared those records to participants’ responses to survey questions about their social activities and interactions.

They found that friendships were the fountain of youth: People with more active social lives had a “younger” heart, whereas the most isolated people had a cardiac age gap in the other direction and showed signs of accelerated aging.

“Our findings suggest that fostering community engagement and strong social networks could potentially slow down the aging process,” said research fellow Nazanin Rajai, MD, MPH, who also worked on the study. “This information is invaluable for designing interventions and strategies to promote social connections, especially within vulnerable populations.”





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