Having a large social network may help keep women’s hearts healthy, according to new research.

The study shows that women with suspected heart disease who had the smallest social networks die at twice the rate of those who had the largest networks of social support.

Researchers also found women that had extensive social contacts and saw them often had lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels and had lower rates of smoking and other factors that reduced their risk of heart disease.

Although previous studies have linked social isolation to a higher risk of death, researchers say this study is among the first to identify a relationship between social support and risk of death in a group of women with suspected heart disease.

The study appears in the November/December issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

Social Networks Keep Hearts Healthy

In the study, researchers followed 503 older women (average age 59) who were referred to a doctor for suspected heart disease. The women were evaluated and then followed for a little over two years.

Researchers found half as many women who reported having a large social network died during the follow-up period as women who had the smallest social network, and the risk of dying decreased as the size of the women’s social network increased.

In addition, the study showed that women with a large social network consistently had lower heart disease risk factors, including:

—Lower blood glucose levels

—Lower smoking rates

—Less fat around the midsection (waist-hip ratio)

—Lower blood pressure rates

—Lower rates of diabetes

Women with large social networks also showed fewer signs of clogged arteries as shown by angiogram images.

Researchers say the results reinforce the importance of evaluating social support networks in treating women at risk for heart disease.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Rutledge, T. Psychosomatic Medicine, November/December 2004; vol 66: pp 882-888. News release, Health Behavior News Service.