NCI Blog

Loneliness and the Heart: Social Disadvantage, Social Isolation and Cardiovascular Health.

Posted by Emma Henderson on 24 April 2015


The final talk of our series In the Psychologists’ Chair lived up to the previous events, and provided some fascinating insights into the health impacts of social isolation, social deprivation and loneliness. Dr Cathal McCrory of Trinity College Dublin took us on this journey in describing his research work which utilises the extensive dataset of the Irish Longitudinal Data on ageing research. You can read the research paper here. 

Firstly Dr McCrory outlined the so called social gradient in health and outlined how a person’s level of deprivation was directly linked to life expectancy. For example men in the least deprived quintile will live 4.3 years longer on average compared with men in the most deprived quintile of society and furthermore the risk of cardiovascular disease is more than doubled for those in the most deprived segment compared to more affluent peers. Of course there are lifestyle factors like smoking, diet and exercise but these factors do not explain all the differences between social groups. As a psychologist Dr McCrory explained that his interest was in looking at the psychosocial factors that might explain this.

One idea is that social disadvantage may lead to more stressors whilst simultaneously decreasing the ability to be resilient to these stressors. Given the link between resting heart rate and mortality the research focused on this. The results showed that psychosocial factors such as feeling lonely, feelings of depression and perceived stress all raised resting heart rate and thus could potentially impact on mortality. The main factor that could mitigate against this was having a social network. Having a social network was seen to be a positive way to reduce resting heart rate. Social network measures included being married, being a member of a club or religious or sporting group and having close ties in your life. These kinds of social networks were particularly important for men.

Social support is a fundamental need and a lack of social support/social integration is a stressor that heightens feelings of vulnerability and promotes vigilance for threat. One of the main things that we can all do to help lower our heart rates and improve our cardio health would be to get out there and start to build and cherish those social connections.

The audience had a lively question and answer session with some of the differences between men and women’s resting heart rates getting particular attention (Being married tends to reduce men’s resting heart rate but increase resting heart rate in women!).

NCI thanks Cathal for his fascinating talk. Read about previous events in the series here or hereThe new part-time BA Hons in Psychology course will be starting at NCI this September.

Read about our BA (Hons.) in Psychology

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Topics: Events at NCI, Psychology