Close ties: How social connections can lower heart disease risk

By Our Reporter
Representational Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

Monash University-led research has highlighted key social factors that could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) for men and women. Utilising artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) algorithms, the study, published in the BMJ Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, examined 25 social factors to identify predictors of CVD.

The findings suggest that social support and close relationships are significant in reducing CVD risk. For both men and women, being married or partnered, or receiving support from others, was linked to a lower risk of CVD. Specifically, men benefited from engaging in activities like playing chess or cards, having 3-8 close relatives they could rely on for help, and discussing private matters with them. These factors were associated with an 18%, 24%, and 30% lower risk of CVD, respectively.

Women, on the other hand, showed a reduced CVD risk when living with others, such as family or friends, and having at least three friends with whom they could comfortably discuss personal matters. These factors corresponded to a 26% and 29% lower risk of CVD, respectively.

The study drew data from 9,936 initially healthy Australians aged 70 and above, who were followed for an average of six years as part of the ASPREE project. This comprehensive research employed both AI and conventional models to draw its conclusions.

Achamyeleh Birhanu Teshale, the study’s first author and a PhD candidate at Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, emphasised the benefits of social support. He noted that women’s close friendships and men’s reliance on close relatives for assistance or discussion of personal matters were particularly beneficial for cardiovascular health.

Senior author Dr Rosanne Freak-Poli from the Monash University School of Clinical Sciences and School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine highlighted the study’s novelty in considering a wide array of social factors. The research examined 25 socialisation variables across five domains, including relative and friend support, living arrangements, volunteering, social interaction, and employment/retirement.

Dr Freak-Poli stressed the importance of social outlets and government programs in fostering social connections. She pointed out that discussing emotions and receiving support from family and friends not only benefits mental health but also physical health and wellbeing. She advised older adults to maintain connections with loved ones and seek new social activities or groups to form new friendships, which can change every seven years.

The research underscores the potential of government-supported strategies to increase social support for older people. Initiatives like the Australian government’s Seniors Connected programme, which includes services like FriendLine and Village Hubs, aim to address poor social relationships and promote social engagement.

Dr Freak-Poli also advocated for social prescribing, allowing health professionals to recommend social activities as part of a patient’s health plan. This approach helps link individuals with community services to improve their wellbeing and quality of life, making it easier to find a suitable social group.

Overall, the study highlights the critical role of social factors in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, offering valuable insights for both individuals and policymakers in promoting heart health through social connections.

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