Researchers at the University of British Columbia are discovering that social isolation affects the health of men and women in different ways—including placing women at higher risk of high blood pressure. In a study published in the Journal of Hypertension, researchers discovered that middle-aged and older women who lacked social ties were much more likely than men to suffer from hypertension—a known risk factor for heart disease, which is the leading cause of death among women—and stroke.
Using data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, researchers analyzed the social ties of 28 238 adults aged 45 to 85, and found that women who were nonpartnered, engaged in fewer than three social activities a month, or had a small social network (fewer than 85 contacts) had higher odds of hypertension. Average systolic blood pressure was highest among widowed, lone-living, and socially inactive women, and the largest difference in blood pressure was between widowed and married women. Widowed women were found to have the strongest likelihood of hypertension across all categories.
Among men, those who were single, shared a home with others, and had the largest social networks had the highest blood pressure, while those who had smaller networks and lived alone had lower blood pressure.
Researchers found that combinations of different social ties also mattered. Regular social participation appeared to have a protective effect among nonpartnered women, suggesting that health care providers may want to screen for the number of monthly social activities, and include these alongside healthy diet and exercise when treating nonpartnered older women.
Previous research by Dr Annalijn Conklin using the same data set found that women who were single, widowed, divorced, or separated had higher odds of abdominal and general obesity, while men were less likely to be obese if they lived alone and had a smaller social network.
Authors say more studies are needed on how exactly social connections impact cardiovascular risk factors. Prospective and intervention studies can help researchers understand this as well as why the associations are different for women compared to men.
Dr Conklin, assistant professor in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at UBC and researcher with the Centre for Health Evaluation and Outcome Sciences is the principal investigator of the study. Dr Zeinab Hosseini, the lead author, contributed to the work as a former postdoctoral fellow at UBC. The study, “Social connections and hypertension in women and men,” was co-authored by UBC sociology professor Dr Gerry Veenstra and UBC medicine professor Dr Nadia Khan, and funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Read the study online at https://tinyurl.com/y49qcks5 (subscription required).
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