Social Relationships Good for Men's Hearts

A human touch helps men's hearts, data suggest.

The finding comes from an analysis of data collected in the huge Framingham Heart Study. Harvard researcher Eric B. Loucks, PhD, and colleagues combed through data from 3,267 men and women averaging 62 years of age.

The researchers rated each participant on measures of "social networks" -- being married, the number of relatives and friends in whom they could confide, involvement in religious meetings or services, and participation in groups such as senior centers.

The researchers measured blood markers for inflammation in each participant. Inflammation of blood vessels ups a person's risk of heart disease. It has been shown to be associated with the development of atherosclerosis in blood vessel walls.

One of the markers -- a chemical signal called Interleukin-6 (IL-6), which switches on inflammation, was significantly higher in socially isolated men than in socially well-connected men.

"It may be good for the heart to be connected," Loucks says in a news release. "In general, it seems to be good for health to have close friends and family, to be connected to community groups or religious organizations, and to have a close partner."

According to the news release, inflammatory markers may be elevated in socially isolated men for two reasons. Studies have linked social isolation to high-risk behaviors, such as smoking and physical inactivity. Also, socially isolated people are often depressed and under more stress, which can increase inflammatory blood markers.

The findings didn't apply to women. That may be because the study looked at the number of a person's relationships, but not the quality of those relationships.

This may be even more important for women than for men. Earlier studies find that married men are, overall, healthier than unmarried men. But only women in happy marriages are healthier than unmarried women.

Loucks presented the study findings at the American Heart Association's 45th Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention in Washington, D.C.

By Daniel J. DeNoon, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: American Heart Association 45th Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention, Washington, D.C., April 29-May 2, 2005. News release, American Heart Association. WebMD Medical News: "Only Happy Marriage Is Healthy for Women."