Companionship can be good for the heart (and brain) in more ways than one.
In the full bloom of youth, a person’s world seems to expand with each passing year. Later in life, the opposite happens. As driving becomes challenging and physical or mental health issues make socializing more difficult, people often find themselves increasingly isolated. And that could be bad for their stroke risk as well as their mood.
Did you know that every 40 seconds, someone in the United States has a stroke? Certain lifestyle changes, such as eating more fresh foods, fitting in more activity and quitting smoking, can help reduce the risk. But something even more basic might help, too: companionship.
If you have an aging parent who is living alone, as many older Americans are, here’s what you should know about human connection and stroke prevention:
1. Companionship could be a lifesaver. Your parent might claim to enjoy their solitude, but too much alone time may not be doing their heart or blood vessels any favors. Social isolation appears to slightly increase the risk of a first stroke or heart attack, and among people who’ve had a stroke, a recent study suggests it increases the risk of death within seven years by 32 percent. Loneliness (feeling lonely) is also potentially dangerous, as it’s tied to increases in blood pressure. While it’s not proven that social connection benefits the heart and blood vessels, it couldn’t hurt, and might help.
2. Shared meals may be healthier meals. Research shows that older adults who are socially isolated, and those who live alone, often don’t eat well. If you’re cooking for one, you can’t make it to the grocery store easily, you have difficulty shopping or cooking or you’re just plain unmotivated to take good care of yourself, you’re more inclined to reach for frozen, canned or ready-made foods that are high in salt and fat — exactly the wrong foods for preventing a stroke. Older people who live alone also typically eat a less-varied diet with fewer vegetables. For some folks, having a friend, family member or aide to cook or eat with could be a recipe for better nutrition.
3. Connecting can help ward off depression, a known stroke risk. People with depression appear to have a significantly increased risk of stroke. Regular face-to-face interactions can help stave off depression, especially in older adults. In one study, participants who met with family and friends face to face at least three times a week had the lowest level of depressive symptoms two years later.
4. Companionship may boost medication compliance. Managing high blood pressure is one of the most important ways to ward off a stroke. Yet depression and lack of social support can reduce a senior’s likelihood of following doctor’s orders when it comes to taking their medications, including their high blood pressure medication. On the flip side, research shows that people with stronger social support systems are more likely to take their meds as directed. Having direct assistance with filling prescriptions and taking medication may be most helpful of all, according to one study.
A senior doesn’t need a bustling social life to avoid isolation. Even having an aide to share a meal with or provide a ride to the hairdresser might be just what the doctor ordered.