It’s no secret that loneliness and social isolation negatively impact the mental and physical health of older adults. Now researchers at the University of British Columbia are discovering that social isolation affects men’s and women’s health in different ways – including women’s exposure to high blood pressure.
In a recent in the Journal of HypertensionResearchers discovered that middle-aged and older women who lacked social ties were much more likely than men to suffer from high blood pressure – a known risk factor for heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in women – and stroke.
In older adults, social isolation is the largest known risk factor for mortality, synonymous with smoking. What is less well known is how social isolation affects men and women differently, or how it affects biomarkers for longevity. Our research shows that women in particular are more likely to be hypertensive if they are isolated in middle and older ages. ”
Annalijn Conklin, Principal Researcher, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at UBC and Researcher at the Center for Health Assessment and Outcome Sciences
Using data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study of Aging, these researchers analyzed the social ties of 28,238 adults ages 45 to 85 and found that non-partner women engaged in fewer than three social activities per month or had a small social network had (fewer than 85 contacts) were more likely to have high blood pressure. The mean systolic blood pressure was highest in widowed, single, and socially inactive women, and the largest blood pressure difference was between widowed and married women. Widowed women were found to be the most likely to have high blood pressure across all categories.
In men the picture was very different. Those who were single, shared homes, and had the largest social networks had the highest blood pressure, while those who had smaller networks and lived alone had lower blood pressure.
The researchers found that combinations of different social ties are also important. Regular social engagement appeared to have a protective effect in women without a partner, suggesting that health care providers may want to review the number of monthly social activities and take these into account, along with healthy diet and exercise, when treating older women without a partner.
“In women, the increases in blood pressure associated with lack of social ties were similar to those from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory use, increased pollution from sodium diets, or weight gain,” Conklin said. “This is an important women-specific risk factor for heart disease or stroke.”
Previous Conklin research using the same dataset found that single, widowed, divorced, or separated women were more likely to develop abdominal and general obesity, while men were less likely to be obese if they lived alone and had a smaller social network.
“Our new findings show how social isolation affects the health of men and women differently,” said Conklin. “At a time when COVID-19 is forcing us to limit our social interactions, it is important for those who work in healthcare and public health to encourage older women in particular to find new ways to be socially active . ”
Zeinab Hosseini, the lead author who contributed to the work as a former postdoctoral fellow at UBC, says more studies are needed on how exactly social connections affect cardiovascular risk factors. “Prospective studies and intervention studies can help us understand this and understand why the associations are different for women than for men,” she said.
University of British Columbia
Hosseini, Z., et al. (2020) Social Connections and Hypertension in Women and Men – A Population-Based Cross-sectional Study of the Canadian Longitudinal Study of Aging. Journal of Hypertension. doi.org/10.1097/HJH.0000000000002688.
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