The strength of a person's support network has a large impact on their recovery and quality of life after a heart attack, according to a study published online February 16 in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes. Researchers found that help from family and friends was especially important for women, who tended to suffer more than men did when support was not available.
Social Support & Heart Health
Social support is the physical and emotional comfort we get from our family, friends, and the community. Feeling that we are a valued part of the lives of others is important to everyone's sense of well-being, but studies have found that social support plays a special role in how we react to and recover from stressful life events, including a heart attack.
Earlier research has found that people who have small support networks are more likely to develop coronary artery disease and suffer a heart attack than people with larger support groups. Among people with heart disease, those with less social support have a higher risk of dying or being hospitalized. However, this study was one of the first to examine how social support affects patient-centered outcomes like symptoms and quality of life.
The study looked at 2,411 patients (one third were women) treated for heart attack at 19 US medical centers. They were asked about the amount of social support they received, as well as their symptoms, quality of life, and mental and physical health while recovering in the hospital and up to a year later.
The researchers found that patients who got lots of support from family and friends had less chest pain, a better quality of life, better mental and physical functioning, and fewer symptoms of depression compared with those who received little support. The difference in outcomes between high and low levels of social support was larger in women than it was in men.
It is not clear why a lack of social support appears to hit women harder than men. The researchers suggested that because women are more likely to seek social support in stressful situations, they might value this support more than men do, and suffer more when it is not available. Women may also be more likely to experience depression after a heart attack, which often pulls people away from sources of support and may increase the mental burden on women.
What it Means for You
The results of this study highlight the importance of involving your friends and family in your recovery from heart disease. If you have been diagnosed with heart disease, suffered a heart attack or stroke, or undergone a procedure to treat heart disease, try to stay as socially active as possible and let your loved ones know what they can do to help. Because older women often outlive their spouses, they may need to turn elsewhere for support, such as children or friends. Organized support groups can also be a valuable source of social support and provide a safe place to discuss issues with women who are going through the same thing you are.
See below to learn more about social support and heart and blood vessel disease, including how to find a support group near you:
Source: Leifheit-Limson EC, Reid KJ et al. The Role of Social Support in Health Status and Depressive Symptoms after Acute Myocardial Infarction: Evidence for a Stronger Relationship among Women. Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2010;3:00.