Making Connections: Friendship, Intimacy, and Cardiac Health

By James M. Rippe

People who have trouble connecting with others and developing intimate relationships also may have a higher risk of developing heart disease and suffering its consequences. The opposite also is true: Those who have strong relationships with others also have a healthier heart.

Suffering the lonely heart

Maybe poets are absolutely correct when they write about dying of a broken heart. Numerous studies show that individuals who feel isolated and alone are much more likely to experience health problems, including heart disease and cancer, than are individuals who experience intimacy, love, and a sense of being connected. Take a look at the findings:

  • The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published a study of more than 2,300 men who had survived a heart attack. The risk of death for participants who were classified as socially isolated and having a high degree of stress was more than four times that of participants with low levels of stress and isolation.

    These relationships held up even when the study was controlled for other cardiac risk factors, such as smoking, diet, exercise, and weight.

  • In a Duke University study of 1,400 men and women who had blockage of at least one coronary artery (determined by coronary angiography), study participants who weren’t married and didn’t have at least one close confidant were more than three times more likely to have died at follow-up than participants who were married and/or had a confidant.

  • In a third study, participants who suffered a recent heart attack and lived alone experienced twice the risk of dying after a heart attack when compared with participants who lived with one or more other individuals and described their relationships as close.

In many other studies conducted in diverse cultures, social isolation has been found to increase the risk of heart disease, sudden death, and cancer.

Promoting the healing power of love

Numerous studies show that people who give and receive love actually decrease their risks of heart disease and other diseases. Check out these examples:

  • In one famous study conducted among Harvard undergraduates in the early 1950s, participants were asked to describe their relationships with their parents. When their medical records were examined in the 1980s, the results were astounding.

    Ninety-one percent of these former students who said they didn’t have a loving relationship with their parents had been diagnosed with serious diseases by midlife, most prominently CHD and high blood pressure. However, fewer than 50 percent of the participants who reported warm and loving relationships with their parents had developed these chronic diseases in adult life.

  • A similar study conducted at Johns Hopkins Medical School shows that physician participants who ultimately developed severe medical problems were much less likely to have described close loving relationships earlier in life than were participants who had not suffered such medical problems.

  • In yet another study of elderly individuals with heart disease, participants who were able to reach out for help had one-third the risk of dying from heart disease as older individuals who tried to go it alone.

Connecting for heart health

As you can see, the ability to connect with other individuals appears to carry significant cardiac benefit. If you feel isolated or lonely, it may be time to make some connections by

  • Investing time and thought in friends and/or family as seriously as you do in your work.

  • Joining an interest group. From chess clubs to gardening clubs, book clubs to folkdance societies, running clubs to writing classes, an activity-related group that matches your interests is out there for you to benefit from.

  • Finding a third place. Beyond home and work, people long have benefited from a close connection to a third place in their communities. For many it’s their church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. For others, it’s a social group, community organization, or other activity or group that is meaningful to them. The identity of your third place isn’t as important as the fact that you have one.