MONDAY, June 18, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- They say that one is the loneliest number, but it might also be the deadliest.
Two new studies suggest that living alone or being lonely can raise a person's risk of dying from heart disease or any cause.
In one study, people with heart disease who lived alone were more likely to die than their counterparts who did not. A second report showed that people aged 60 or older were at an increased risk of functional decline and/or death if they felt left out, isolated or reported a lack of companionship. Both studies were released online June 18 in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
"Living alone may be a risk factor for a bad outcome," said study author Dr. Deepak Bhatt, director of the integrated cardiovascular intervention program at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. The study only looked at whether the individual lived alone. Researchers did not ask whether this was a choice or if they had lost a partner or had a pet.
But, he said, a person can be lonely and not live alone, and live alone and not be lonely. Still, living alone, regardless of the reason, should be a red flag for doctors to ask more questions.
There are many reasons that living alone or feeling lonely could increase risk for health problems and death. "If you had a heart attack and run out of medication and don't fill your prescription, you will run into trouble," he said. "Spouses and children can run out and get medications for you, and then you are less likely to get into trouble."
What's more, someone who is lonely may be more likely to be depressed, he said. This would make them less likely to take care of themselves, which could increase their risk of dying from any cause. Bottom line is that "doctors should get a good social history," Bhatt said.
In the second report, Dr. Carla Perissinotto, of the University of California, San Francisco, found that loneliness was associated with an increased risk of death during the study's six-year follow-up period. What's more, loneliness was also associated with functional decline.
Taken together, "the studies show that social isolation is associated with cardiovascular mortality in people with heart disease," said Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a clinical associate professor in the department of medicine at the Leon H. Carney Division of Cardiology at NYU Langone Medical Center and medical director at the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health in New York City.
It's all about a patient's support system, she said. Health care providers need to try to identify a support system -- or lack thereof -- before a person with heart disease is released from the hospital. "A support system doesn't have to be an individual, it can be a place of worship or senior's group," Goldberg noted.
While the study uncovered an association between being lonely and an increased risk for health problems and death, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
Learn about other risks for heart disease at the American Heart Association.