- Health & Wellness
- Service Line
When it comes to heart health, we often focus on the importance of healthy blood pressure, cholesterol levels, exercise and diet in keeping our hearts strong. But did you know that your social relationships and connections also play a powerful role in keeping your heart beating strong?
“Whether it’s intimate relationships, friendships or social engagement, healthy connections with others greatly improves our heart health and longevity,” says Diane Mushaben, MA, LPCC-S, a specialty treatment coordinator with TriHealth EAP. “In fact, research shows that loneliness can be as harmful to our hearts and blood vessels as smoking, high blood pressure or high cholesterol!”
According to a report from Harvard Medical School Publishing, people with richer social connections generally live longer and recover more quickly from heart attacks and other health setbacks. In fact, heart attack survivors are four times more likely to die in the three years after their attack if they are socially isolated.
Another report, from the American Heart Association, suggests that those with healthy marriages or intimate relationships have a significantly reduced risk for cardiovascular disease. But conversely, poor quality relationships are linked to increased risk of heart disease, especially for women. These benefits or risks become increasingly strong with age.
People who have great social connections also have fewer negative health behaviors overall, according to Mushaben. When you care about others and know they value you, your ability to choose positive behaviors such as exercise and eating healthy increases. And conversely, you are better able to resist negative behaviors such as smoking or excessive alcohol consumption.
Mushaben also mentions the stress-relief benefits of positive social connections.
“Hormones released as a natural stress response can damage blood vessels or cause an increase of blood pressure,” she says. “On the other hand, positive relationships can have a calming effect on the brain, reducing this inflammatory stress response.”
Healthy marriages or committed relationships are not the only beneficial connections for heart health. “Having a diverse network of friends and community members can be a benefit,” Mushaben says. “Joining with others who share your interests or values – even if virtually for now – can naturally lead to increased well-being and less isolation.”
Participating in clubs, neighborhood groups, religious communities, sports or hobbies can be a good way to increase your connections with people who share your interests.
“If you struggle to meet others and build relationships,” Mushaben says, “you may want to consider reaching out to a therapist, such as through your employee assistance program, such as TriHealth EAP, if you have access to one. You can also find other resources in your community to work on overcoming barriers to building strong connections.”