Image of Annalijn Conklin, Ph.D.

Older women who lack social ties are much more likely than men to have hypertension, according to a new study. Yet in men, a quieter social life is linked to lower blood pressure, the authors say. 

The researchers analyzed health social and health data for more than 28,000 adults aged 45 to 85 years. Women had higher odds of hypertension when they had no partner, engaged in fewer than three social activities a month, and had a small social network with fewer than 85 contacts, reported Annalijn Conklin, Ph.D., of the University of British Columbia.

Widowhood, living alone and social inactivity were tied to the highest average systolic blood pressure rates. Among all factors, widowhood conferred the greatest risk of hypertension, especially when compared with being married, the researchers found.

In contrast, the hypertension risk for men was highest for those who shared a home with others and had a large social network. Men with smaller networks and who lived alone had lower blood pressure.

Among women, blood pressure levels tied to social isolation was similar to blood pressure levels seen with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory use, high-sodium diets, or weight gain, Conklin said. “This represents a significant women-specific risk factor for heart disease or stroke.”

Coklin’s team also found similar differences between men and women in a prior study of social isolation and obesity.

“Taken with our previous research, our new findings underline how social isolation affects health in men and women differently,” Conklin said. “At a time when COVID-19 is forcing us to limit our social interactions, it’s important for those working in healthcare and public health to encourage older women, in particular, to find new ways to be socially active.”

Data were gleaned from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging. The study was published in the Journal of Hypertension.