It is February. A time when walking through shopping centres will see you assaulted by plush heart-holding-gorillas and heart-wielding sales assistants, all promising to solve your love woes with heart-shaped chocolates.
While you might be skeptical that these hearts help love, growing research is showing that the opposite is in fact true: Love helps your heart.
Back in 1977, James Lynch published “The Broken Heart,” citing clinical evidence that linked a lack of social connection to cardiovascular disease. Since then, several other studies have reinforced this finding. In 2016, a meta-analysis by Valtorta et al1., found that poor social relationships were associated with a 29% increase in the risk of coronary heart disease and a 32% increase in risk of stroke. As with any study of this nature, the results need to be interpreted with caution (e.g., it does not necessarily show causality); however, it does demonstrate the potential significance of your social connectivity.
Of course, it’s not just romantic partnerships that yield these benefits. Social connection incorporates family and friends – an entire network that works to improve your health. And as with any good story, there is a corollary: Not all relationships are healthy. Poor relationships are linked to higher stress and may actually lead to an increase in the risk of heart disease2.
So how can social connections affect the heart? Researchers have put forward a number of theories, including the following factors:
- Social connections affect our lifestyle choices (e.g., level of physical activity, avoidance of risk-taking behaviours, diet).
- They positively impact medical adherence (e.g., taking medication, seeking medical help when necessary).
- They can mitigate psychological conditions (e.g., stress, depression).
How we experience stress and the ability to cope with life are believed to be strongly influenced by our social connectivity, with friends and family helping us through tough times with emotional and functional support. Ultimately these factors link to biomarkers, such as blood pressure and inflammation3. This in turn influences heart health.
Given this research, the world is slowly coming to recognise that social connection plays a significant role in our health. In fact, the World Health Organization now includes “social support networks” as being linked to better health. While we continue to seek solutions to improve physical activity and reduce the impact of obesity, it still remains for social connection to be given equal attention despite studies that claim to show that it is as predictive as traditional mortality factors.
As you select your Valentine’s dinner this year, you might have a fleeting thought about how your diet affects your heart. While this may be key in managing your health, another factor – one that is potentially as important – might just be sitting opposite you.
- Valtorta NK, Kanaan M, Gilbody S, et al. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart 2016;102:1009–16.16
- De Vogli, R et al. (2007). Negative aspects of close relationships and heart disease. Arch Intern Med. 2007 Oct 8; 167 (18): 1951-7.
- Uchino, BN et al. (1999). Social support, physiological processes, and health. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8, 218-221.