The Importance of Social Interaction

Living with a heart condition can be like facing a road full of obstacles. But while slowing down and changing course may be necessary, it’s best for your heart to keep doing the things you enjoy and spending time with others.

Keeping in touch with the world beyond your home and family is essential. Medical research has shown that social interactions are important for heath in general, but there are studies that focus on the effects of social activity on heart health specifically.

Having an active social life may lower the risk of fatal cardiovascular disease. One research study showed that loneliness and social isolation was linked to a 29% increased risk of a heart attack or angina, and a 32% increased risk of having a stroke. These statistics become even more meaningful if you have already experienced a stroke, or are having a heart procedure that carries the risk of stroke, such as TAVI (transcatheter aortic valve implantation).

How Social Interaction Helps the Heart

The theory is that social interactions may act as a buffer, protecting you from the potentially harmful effects of ongoing stress and the way your body responds to it. This stress response involves your body’s release of adrenaline, which causes your heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise.

Being around other people and doing activities you enjoy can also ward off depression, which is a significant risk factor for poor outcomes in people with heart disease. In fact, some experts say that cardiac rehabilitation programs should include not only an assessment and treatment of depression, but also education about the importance of family and social connections.

In recent years, researchers have begun to study the cardiovascular effects of social isolation, and have deduced that feeling alone may hurt your heart even more than actually being alone. That could be because loneliness – the feeling that you have no one to turn to and that no one understands you – is a form of stress.

Staying Socially Active

What can you do to stay socially active if you have a heart condition? Here are some tips:

  • Slow it down. Maybe you can no longer bicycle in a riding group or run a race, but instead try taking strolls around your neighborhood with a friend or join a club where members walk inside shopping malls.
  • Think outside the box. While it may be too stressful to head up large projects at your local association or church group, consider participating in other ways. You could bake cakes or make craft items to help raise money, or help mentor younger members of your group.
  • Join a support group. Sometimes being with others who are going through similar experiences can be very helpful. Your healthcare provider or local hospital are reliable sources of information for support groups for people with heart conditions.
  • Adopt a pet. Pets can provide comforting companionship. In a study of people in high-stress jobs who were taking medicine for high blood pressure, half were asked to acquire pets. Six months later, those with the pets had better control of their blood pressure.
  • Learn a new hobby. Consider signing up for a class through a community college or city government. Taking a class is a great opportunity to meet people with similar interests, and keep your mind sharp. Libraries, community and senior centers are another great source for social learning opportunities and often have a full schedule of events, lectures and classes.
  • Volunteer. Not only will volunteering increase your social activity, you will also be helping others and your community. Walking dogs at the local animal shelter or serving meals to those less fortunate are just a couple of ways you could get involved and meet new friends.

It’s been proven that adults who are more socially connected are healthier and live longer than those who are more isolated. If you’re feeling isolated or lonely, tell your healthcare provider about it, as well as your friends and family who may be able to provide support.

Keeping up with social activities and ties, even if you can’t manage as much as before, is a gift you can give to yourself and to your heart.