By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/21/2009 11:30:47 AM ET 2009-08-21T15:30:47

For some women, a lonely heart may lead to actual heart damage.

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A new study has linked feeling forlorn to a nearly 80 percent increase in the risk of heart disease — but only in women.

Other studies have shown that depressed and socially isolated people are at a greater risk for developing heart disease, said the study’s lead author Rebecca C. Thurston, an assistant professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Both of these factors can lead to stress, which can ultimately lead to heart disease. But in a new study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, Thurston found the loneliness link even after accounting for the women’s level of depression and sociability.

Thurston wanted to focus on loneliness because it’s an especially negative and distressing emotion that many people experience.

“I was particularly intrigued by the documented findings that people can feel lonely despite having many people in their lives,” she said.  “When it comes to loneliness, it’s not just how many friends you have, but also how supported you feel. You can have a lot of people around you and still feel lonely.”

People feel lonely when they don’t have a sense of connectedness with their friends and families, experts say.

“Loneliness is related to how fulfilled we feel in our relationships,” said Brooke Aggarwal, a researcher in preventive cardiology at Columbia University Medical Center/New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “We experience feelings of loneliness when we feel that what we’re getting from our relationships falls short of what we expect.”

Thurston and a colleague from the Harvard School of Public Health scrutinized 19 years of data from more than 3,000 men and women collected as part of a major ongoing health and nutrition survey.

At the beginning of the survey period, everyone had a comprehensive physical examination and an extensive in-person interview that included questions about loneliness. In the years that followed, the researchers tracked heart health in the participants.

Thurston looked back over the years and found that the loneliest women at the start ended up 76 percent more likely than the other women to develop heart disease.

She suspects that the link showed up only in women because they tend to be more concerned about relationship quality than men. Women also tend to be more distressed when relationships with spouses and friends aren’t as close as they hoped, she said.

The new findings fall in line with other research showing that while any type of marriage can protect a man’s heart, a bad marriage can be harmful for a woman’s health, Thurston said.

Aggarwal said she hopes the new study may remind physicians to consider mental and emotional health when they evaluate and treat patients for heart disease risk.

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