It’s Time to Quit the Lonely Heart’s Club

I was struck by a report yesterday in the Daily Mail about a new study that says lonely people are twice as likely to die from heart problems. You can read the report for yourself, but the study found, among other things, that:

  • Lack of social support may cause people to not take medication correctly
  • Loneliness increases people’s risk of anxiety and depression by three times
  • Approximately 42.6 million adults over 45 in the U.S. report being lonely
  • In the U.K., 3.9 million people say the television is their main source of company

Loneliness is a strong emotion and I’m not surprised it can cause health issues, but being lonely makes you twice as likely to die from heart problems? I guess you really can die of a broken heart.

“Loneliness is a strong predictor of premature death, worse mental health, and lower quality of life in patients with cardiovascular disease, and a much stronger predictor than living alone, in both men and women.” – Study author Anne Vinggaard Christensen, Copenhagen University

The caveat here is that the study looked at patients with existing cardiovascular disease, and I can tell you from experience that having a friend or partner to talk to when you have a health issue is critical. But this also speaks to finding a support network when you have a heart attack or frankly any health crisis.

Following my heart attack at age 45, I couldn’t find anyone to talk to that shared the same experience with me. There were support groups, but the most prominent one was full of patients much older than me. During cardiac rehab, I was the youngest patient by 20 years. I felt alone, which is what led me to start my own support group specifically for young heart attack survivors. The group started small, but today the Under 55 Heart Attack Survivors Group on Facebook has grown to more than 3,300 members from all over the world. The American Heart Association also has a support network.

Loneliness is a tricky thing. I can’t imagine how I’d have gotten through my health issues without the love and support of my wife and son and my extended family. I know survivors who don’t have a significant other and that fact alone can make things so much worse. There’s nobody to go with you to doctor appointments. Nobody to celebrate with when you reach a milestone. Nobody to lean on when things don’t go as planned. Being a heart attack survivor is something I deal with every day — I’m so fortunate I don’t have to deal with it alone.

That said, I probably don’t do as good a job as I should simply getting out of the house to meet with friends. Men have a harder time making close friends than women, I think. There’s something very offputting about calling up a guy you don’t know that well and asking him to join you for a ballgame or a movie. Most men, and probably a lot of women, only have a handful of really close friends. I mean, lots of people checked in on me in the days and months following my heart attack, but after a while that petered out and now I often can’t find a guy to go to a concert with or have a drink with.

It’s definitely a two-way street though. If you want friends you have to be willing to take the first step. Excuses are easy to find. Maybe he or she has young kids and you don’t. Or maybe you live just a bit too far away for it to be convenient. Or maybe you like country music and she prefers hip hop. Or maybe I’m just overthinking it!

Recently I’ve tried to push myself on this front. In the past few months, I initiated lunch with a guy I didn’t know that well. I invited a newer friend to a concert I wanted to attend. I launched a monthly book club. I’m trying.

bocci
A 2017 New York Times piece says bocce ball is the secret to living a long life

I think a lot of the difficulty stems from our busy lives in general. But I’m now at a point where I don’t have a young child in the home and I have a job that doesn’t keep me up working at all hours of the night. I do think, though, that there’s something of a societal issue going on. One-quarter of the U.S. population lives alone. And we’re working more. And if we’ve got kids we’re running them around to karate and soccer and swim practice. There’s also been a decline in civic activity in general.

In 2000 author Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In the book, Putnam reported that “we’ve become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures.” By this, he means we’ve stopped joining clubs and social groups. In fact, in the 25 years prior to the book coming out, Americans had a 58% drop in attending clubs, a 43% drop in family dinners and a 35% drop in having friends over. I don’t know too many people my age who are involved in Kiwanis or the Jaycees, or who participate in sports leagues or bridge clubs.

I do think there’s a growing trend in these activities among millennials and generation Z. I have some young friends at work who are in a kickball league (how very millennial). And maybe some of you are doing things and I’m just not aware. I have at least one friend who goes lawn bowling (and yes, he’s under the age of 80). I have another friend who is very active in Rotary. But in general, I think the trends outlined by Putnam haven’t changed much since 2000.

All this is to say, there’s a cure for loneliness and all it requires is for us to step out from behind the computer and go outside. And lest you think loneliness is not a health concern, this study surely proves otherwise. And for me, I just have to think about that “buzz” I have when I come home from dinner with friends or a concert with a buddy. Those are endorphins and increasing them releases stress and is good for your heart.

I enjoy alone time as much as the next guy — maybe even a little more than the next guy. But I can also tell when I’ve been hanging out by myself too much. I actually get sad and mopey. I need to remind myself to make time to engage with others in the real world.

What do you do to ensure you spend quality time with other human beings? Are you good at being the one who initiates a dinner or a coffee meetup? I’m going to keep looking for new ways to get out there and now I can say I’m doing it for my heart.

Anyone up for bocce ball?

Heart Disease, Depression Strongly Linked

anthony-bourdain-dead-6The suicides this week of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have left many of us wondering how in the world such successful people can feel so helpless as to end their own lives. For sure, depression is a dark passenger that is tough to shake.

Depression is also decidedly linked to heart disease. Heart disease can cause depression, and in fact, does in a large percentage of those who suffer a heart attack or similar major cardiac event. Up to 15 percent of patients with cardiovascular disease and up to 20 percent of patients who have undergone coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery experience major depression (American Heart Journal).

On the flip side, depression can actually cause heart disease. Studies have shown that depression and stress has a negative effect on the heart and can lead to high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and even increased inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

I bring this up to remind us all that depression is a serious matter that can destroy a life in many different ways, not just through suicide. So much of what we read about how to prevent heart disease focuses on diet, exercise and risk factors like smoking. But not much is written about the cardiovascular effects of poor mental health.

That said, a focus on total health that includes mental health is the first line of defense against heart disease. Any medical professional worth their weight in education should prescribe mental health therapy as part of any approach to overall wellness. Mind and body are inexorably linked.

The good news is that many of the things prescribed for overall health work to balance mental health and stress as well. Eating well, sleeping well and regular exercise positively affects the body and the mind. Activities like yoga, meditation and mindfulness also have powerful ramifications for both physical and mental wellbeing.

I have to admit I’m not a big fan of exercise and while I’ve tried yoga and meditation I can’t seem to get inspired to make either of them part of my daily routine. I know I should, but since I don’t enjoy it I always find excuses. But every time, without fail, I feel better mentally after exercise.

I’ll try to find more inspiration to exercise, not only for my physical health but for my mental wellbeing. As a heart attack survivor, it’s even more important for me to exercise. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise (or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity). That doesn’t seem so hard.

Just a few days ago a new study was published that suggested just 30 minutes of exercise four to five times per week is enough to keep your heart young.

“Exercising four to five times a week appears to be a sweet spot for overall artery health.” — Study author Dr. Benjamin Levine, a professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center

As for depression, don’t let it get the best of you. It’s bad for your heart and it can easily spiral out of control. If you’re experiencing depression, seek help immediately. There’s no stigma associated with getting help for mental health. And there are so many ways to treat depression, from the aforementioned exercise to therapy to medication.

If you have any suicidal thoughts, reach out right away to the The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The number to call is:

1-800-273-8255

Given how Anthony Bourdain lived — eating everything and anything, drinking, smoking, and taking drugs, it’s amazing he didn’t die from a heart attack. In fact, when I first saw the headline this morning that’s exactly what I thought happened. But no, it was depression. It’s ironic and sad that a guy who lived life on the edge was taken by his mind not his body. Perhaps there’s a lesson there for us all.