When it comes to treating health concerns like hypertension and high cholesterol, doctors have many effective tools to help patients.
But for social issues such as isolation, unhealthy relationships and poverty – factors that can impact a person’s health -- there isn’t an easy cure.
Studies of how social ties affect our health have already linked social isolation to poorer health outcomes. Now researchers are looking at how social relationships may help to reduce stress and heart-related risks. As research continues, some studies have associated strong social connections with living longer.
It’s important to note that having relationships isn’t what affects health outcomes. For example, the health benefits associated with being married only hold true if the relationship is positive. Being in an unhealthy or unhappy relationship can create stress and contribute to health problems.
A study by Michigan State University found the association with marriage quality and heart health seems to increase with age. Older couples ages 57 to 85, in good marriages had a reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease, while people in bad marriages had an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, especially women.
There may not be a prescription to resolve isolation and other social factors that can affect a person’s health. But there are different ways of coping with stress, health experts agree.
“There is no avoiding stress in life,” said Thomas Marker, MD, of Samaritan Cardiology. “There are adaptive and maladaptive responses to stress.”
Dr. Marker has practiced cardiology for more than 30 years in the community. He encourages his patients to exercise, and as head of Cardiac Rehabilitation at Samaritan, Dr. Marker helped create a program that offers people recovering from a heart attack or other heart problems a safe and structured place to exercise, as well as address social needs.
Cardiac rehabilitation provides motivation and support during recovery. People learn healthy habits and how to reduce their risk of future problems. One of the benefits patients of cardiac rehabilitation express is the support and friendship they find with others.
When faced with a serious illness or life-changing health event, many people turn to family and friends for support and comfort. But the stress of coping with a diagnosis can make people feel isolated.
Support groups are another social resource in addition to medical care. The Hearts of Samaritan Support Group offers a place for people to discuss their heart issues and meet others who have similar conditions. The support group brings people together who have a common health concern, so they can share their experiences and learn from each other. Participants often find it helpful just to talk to others.