One year after a heart attack, the risk of death was about the same among people who lived alone as those who lived with others. After four years, however, the risk of death was about 35% higher for people living by themselves.
"Social support should be an important consideration after a heart attack," Emily M. Bucholz, lead researcher of the paper and a student at the Yale School of Medicine, said.
Patients who did not have support at home also reported a significantly lower quality of life just one year after a heart attack, researchers found.
Although the study could not prove that living alone caused earlier death, the research team did account for differences between the people living by themselves and those living with others, such as gender, race, marital status and pet ownership.
That's important, said Dr Sharonne Hayes, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, because these differences alone can affect well-being and the risk of death. "There are fundamental differences between those who live alone and those who don't," said Hayes, who was not involved in the study. "You're comparing apples to oranges."
Differences between two groups
For example, nearly one-third of the study subjects who lived with others were at a healthy weight for their height, compared to only one-fifth of subjects who lived alone. People living alone also tended to be older and were twice as likely to smoke.
Even after accounting for many of these factors, researchers found an increased risk of death four years after a heart attack among the study subjects living alone.
"This study confirms that there are differences between people who do or don't live alone," said Hayes.
Some studies have found that a strong social network, for example, is linked to health; other research has shown that having a pet is also tied to survival.
"Special consideration should be given to ensure patients who live alone receive adequate social support from family, friends, and neighbours to improve recovery," said Bucholz.
In addition to a lack of social support, people living alone may not have the assistance they need to exercise, take their medications or coordinate the logistics of attending doctor's appointments.
Importance of caregivers
Caregivers can reduce the risks that may come with living alone by providing extra support or follow-up care for people who recently had a heart attack, Hayes said. And heart attack patients who may lack social support need to be proactive in seeking connections among people in the community, the workplace, or his or her place of worship.
"These things are not going to come to them, so they should seek it out," Hayes said. "But people also shouldn't think they are doomed if they are living alone."
(Reuters Health, Allison Bond, August 2011)