Loneliness and social isolation could lead one to the grave.

These two can lead to about 30 percent greater risk of having a stroke or developing coronary artery disease, the top causes of illness and fatality in high-income nations, according to a new study.

According to the British researchers, the size of the effect can be compared to that of other established risk factors, including anxiety and job stress.

"We take risk factors like obesity and physical inactivity for granted, whereas we do not yet with social isolation and loneliness,” says lead researcher and University of York research fellow Nicole Valtorta, asserting that data from their study shows otherwise – the matter needs to be taken seriously.

Note, however that the analysis only presented an association and not a direct link. Efforts to curb stroke and heart disease rates, adds Valtorta, should only take loneliness and isolation into account.

The team probed 23 previous studies that covered more than 180,000 adults, of which more than 4,600 suffered heart attacks, had an angina event, or died. Over 3,000 subjects, too, had strokes.

The findings showed that loneliness and social isolation was linked to a 29 percent higher risk of a heart or angina attack, as well as a 32 percent greater risk of experiencing a stroke. The size of the effect was deemed comparable to that of other recognized psychosocial risk factors including anxiety and job strain.

In an accompanying editorial, Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University in Utah echoes the role of social factors in risk assessment and education on these diseases. As interacting with others can sometimes be easier said than done, she agrees that connecting through social media and the Internet can help.

“However, there is some early research to suggest it may not have the same benefits as real person-to-person contact, but it is still too early to tell,” Holt-Lunstad says, highlighting how being lonely can heighten blood pressure, increase inflammation and, as a result, raise atherosclerosis and heart attack risks.

The Local Government Association in the UK warns that loneliness has to be treated as a major public health concern that can add strain on other local services. It cites that more than 1 million people over age 65 today – or about 10 to 13 percent of the elderly – are suffering from loneliness.

Loneliness can be even more harmful than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, the council representing over 370 local bodies continues.

"The impact of loneliness can be devastating and costly – with consequences comparable to smoking and obesity,” says LGA public health spokesperson and councilor Izzi Seccombe. “This can be prevented with early intervention, which a number of councils are already successfully delivering in partnership with volunteer and community organizations.”

In addition, recent studies revealed that 12 percent of older individuals feel trapped in their own home, while nearly 200,000 in the elderly segment in the country do not leave their house. Over half of all people age 75 and above live alone.

The findings were published in the journal Heart.

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