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Death Through Isolation?

By Christopher Kemp · April 8th, 1999 · Science & Technology
Absence is supposed to make the heart grow fonder. According to scientists, however, it could make the heart a lot sicker, too.

Last month, a Swedish study strongly indicated that social isolation is a major factor in the development of heart disease. The heart rates of 300 healthy women were monitored continuously over a 24-hour period. The subjects also answered questions about the proximity of their families, their network of friends and how frequently they felt angry or sad.

Findings showed that the hearts of women who had no friends or family to turn to for help or social interaction were less able to respond to the stresses put on them by common situations. Their hearts showed a level of consistency that lacked the peaks and troughs normally seen in heart rate throughout the day. This lack of heart rate variability has long been implicated as a causative factor of heart disease. In other words, loneliness kills.

This is a bold statement, but it's not truly shocking news. In the 1950s, researchers at Harvard University randomly selected 126 males and asked them to describe the kind of relationship they had with their parents. In 1987, medical files were obtained for the subjects, most of whom were then in their 50s. More than 90 percent of those who previously had described a cold and unaffectionate relationship with their mothers had been diagnosed with serious illnesses in the intervening 35 years. These ranged from coronary artery disease, stomach ulcers and depression to alcoholism and hypertension. In those who recalled a warm, loving relationship with their mothers, only 45 percent had suffered serious illness. So, what is the message? Be nice to your mother?

In the early 1990s, a number of well-publicized studies indicated that owning a pet could afford some protection against heart disease. A dim glimmer of hope was seen by all those who couldn't stand their mothers and would rather eat mud than be nice to her. So, it would seem that the message is: Get a cat. Or, depending on the state of your relationship with your mother, get an extremely vicious and loyal Rottweiler and train him to attack a floral print on sight.

The rest of these new studies should not be a source of great concern. There's no need to rush out and join Oprah's Book Club and start furiously investigating exactly how Stella got her groove back. You don't have to enroll in swing class, learn how to cook Cajun or start interacting with the noisy neighbors that you've never spoken to before. Studies are needed involving a greater number of both male and female subjects from a greater range of social positions before conclusions can be made. A long-term study also is needed to determine whether a larger proportion of the socially isolated women actually go on to develop heart disease than those who are considered socially "healthy."

It might be that risk factors such as reduced heart rate variability do not correlate with increased incidence of coronary dysfunction at all. The Swedish study also failed to investigate the accuracy of the personal information provided by its subjects. For instance, is perceived social isolation as important as actual social isolation? In other words, are women who have no friends or family but think they are the queen of the office as likely to develop heart disease as those who are acutely aware of their isolation? As yet, nobody knows. In fact, very little is truly known about how even the most accepted risk factors exert themselves and even less in known about their possible combinatorial effects.

The findings of the Swedish study serve only to underline the complexity of heart disease and the importance of both physical and psychological well-being on overall health. In recent years, acceptance of the links that exist between the mind and the body has become so widespread in the medical world that many hospitals now boast holistic treatment centers. Here, patients use relaxation techniques, yoga, acupuncture and aromatherapy.

More dubious treatments include herbology, self-improvement tapes, magnetic therapy and reiki, also known as healing touch.

Some find these methods hard to accept but there is no doubt that, at worst, they are harmless and, when used alone or in conjunction with Western medicine, a number of them have proven to be of significant therapeutic value. Presumably, patients also can socially interact with other isolated people for a few hours a week and offset the dangers of contracting heart disease in later life.

From the emergence of new studies such as this one, it seems that the number of causes implicated in heart disease will continue to grow unabated for some time yet. At present, the most commonly cited risk factors for heart disease are obesity, cigarette smoking, physical inactivity, plasma cholesterol levels, age, sex, family history, diet, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, mold toxins and sleep apnea. Now we are able to add social isolation, marital status, anxiety, low socioeconomic status, psychosexual dysfunction, lack of intimacy, fear of commitment, insomnia, feelings of low self-worth, poor parent-child relationships, lack of pets, badly behaved pets, missing pets and pets that refuse to attack floral prints on sight.

Unfortunately, everybody falls prey to some of these risk factors at some point in their lives. At times, they are within our control and we choose to indulge ourselves, aware of the risks. More frequently, they are beyond our control and we have to fight our way through them, hopefully learning something about ourselves in the process.

Heart disease might be all that is left when science manages to eradicate every other major cause of death. Therefore, the only risk factor is life and how to live it. The message? Be nice to your mother because she probably deserves it, think about getting a cat instead of a Rottweiler, keep in touch with your friends and look both ways every time you cross the street.

Chris Kemp is a research scinetist who lives and works in Cincinnati. Contact him at CityBeat, 23 E. Seventh St., Suite 617, Cincinnati, OH 45202 or e-mail him at letters@citybeat.com


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