Heart disease is one of the most common causes of death in the world. We know many ways to help our hearts to stay young and strong, but none of them guarantee permanent results. Now a group of scientists, led by UCL, have discovered that even depression, loneliness, unemployment together with other factors significantly increase the risk of heart disease.
You know that smoking, consuming alcohol and being physically inactive is bad for your heart. However, this study, performed in Eastern Europe, showed that rarely seeing your friends, feeling lonely, being less wealthy and having depression-like symptoms increases your risk even further. Worse still, improving one of these factors does nothing to the others – if you are rich and depressed, the risk of heart disease is still going to be very high. This study is the first of its kind to show that each factor is independently important. Scientists say that these findings are encouraging to change approaches to social stress factors.
Eastern Europe was chosen for the study, because heart disease is a huge problem here – more so than in the rest of the continent. While these countries do have programmes addressing this issue, they typically focus on physical factors, such as smoking, blood pressure and cholesterol. This research is a proof that this approach needs to change to involve a larger variety of people who may be putting themselves at higher risk of heart disease.
Scientists started looking into this problem some 15 years ago. Information was collected from 20,000 healthy middle-aged adults between 2002 and 2005, and then ten years later. This allowed researchers to look back into what social stress factors can be attributed to the early death of the research subjects. Some of these factors are more specific in Eastern Europe, particularly ones related to wealth, however, scientists are not sure why heart disease is more common in Russia than, for example, in Poland. This could be down to physical factors.
Dr Taavi Tillmann, the first author of the study, said: “Our research shows an association between stress and the heart, but it is not clear if stress-related factors directly cause heart disease. What we do know is that these findings are consistent with the wider body of evidence suggesting that lowering stress could indeed lower heart disease”.
Scientists say that it is important to have a positive outlook to life. Hope is what keeps people alive. However, some social stress factors cannot be easily eliminated by personal efforts and so policy makers have to look for solutions as well.