A device for a lonely heart

New medical devices tracking heart health are constantly in development but how can these technologies help manage the effects of loneliness on the cardiovascular system? By Kiays Khalil.

Credit: OlgaZarytska/Shutterstock

We live in a time where technology has the world constantly connected, yet many of us are more isolated than ever. Although it is true that we can reach friends, family and loved ones at a touch of a button – for some people that isn’t always an option. 

The pandemic heightened loneliness in the global population due to lockdowns and the ones most at risk of heart health implication from social isolation were the older generation. 

It is well documented that loneliness can lead to depression, which is an untraditional risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD). Although there is evidence that older people are more at risk, a study indicated that young adults can also be in danger. 

In a study from the Journal of American Heart Association, research showed that depression and poor mental health days (PMHDs) were independently associated with premature CVD and had an effect on cardiovascular health (CVH).  

Another report from BMJ studied the risk factors of loneliness and social isolation and found that poor social relationships were linked to a 29% increase in risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). 

Researchers also looked at data from the UK Biobankstudy and Million Women Study which both had a mean age of 63 and 68 years. This indicated that social isolation was connected to an increase of risk of first CHD. 

“Researchers found that both social isolation and loneliness increased the rate of hospitalisation or death from heart failure by 15-20%. Interestingly, researchers found that social isolation was only a risk factor when loneliness is also present,” says GlobalData Medical Device Analyst Joselia Carlos. 

The toll loneliness takes on mental health is well known, but emerging research is shedding light on its effects on physical health, particularly heart health. Fortunately, advancements in medical technology, such as RPM and ambient sensing, are offering new hope in addressing this critical issue. 

The connection between loneliness and the heart  

Loneliness in the past has always been classed as just an emotion that doesn’t have health implications but it is now recognised as a risk factor for heart disease. Studies show that chronic loneliness can lead to a range of adverse effects on the cardiovascular system, including increased blood pressure, higher stress hormone levels, and heightened inflammation.  

These physiological responses place additional strain on the heart, increasing the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular events. Isolation can trigger the body’s stress response and release chemicals that can have severe effects on the heart. With prolonged and continuous stress, heart disease can occur even in people who have previously shown no cardiovascular risk factors. 

Study author Professor Lu Qi, of Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans said: “Previous studies have shown that loneliness is related to a variety of health events such as metabolic syndrome (abnormalities in adiposity, blood sugar, blood pressure and lipids) which may link loneliness to heart diseases.” 

Home is where the heart is  

Being safe in your domain and having the proper care setup is vital for your well being. Devices like ambient home sensors are a form of smart technology that can detect and alert caregivers or family members to changes in a person’s daily routines, which may signal potential health issues or distress.  

Christopher Berke, director of digital healthcare at Eaton, an intelligent power management company says sensor-based monitoring is assisting many people in their homes. 

“Think about it like a typical alarm system.  Our approach, Smart Ambient Monitoring, uses a combination of energy usage data—how often electrical devices in a home are used—and adds a layer of artificial intelligence to that data to inferentially sense and learn which activities a person engages in on a daily basis,” says Berke. 

Using a combination of sensor-based and energy-based data collection does not directly track loneliness in patients but it can provide data on potential symptoms. 

“It could track activities that might be symptoms of loneliness, or other mental health issues.  For example, through a combination of energy usage and infrared sensing, we could see whether a resident leaves the house, has abnormal sleeping habits, like excessive periods of inactivity (time in bed, watching TV), especially when they are outside of the normal habits of that resident.” 

Tracking a patient’s activities at home, paired with data from an internet connected heart monitor such as a smart watch, gives physicians and caregivers a clear image of their heart health. It also allows them to suggest activities such as community support groups and other social engagements to help manage the patient’s mental health and mood. 

Berke believes the future will require more home monitoring while healthcare practitioners remain in demand. And while mental health hasn’t been applied in Eaton’s technology it is a topic, they are open to explore. 

If explored, this could drastically improve care for those with CVH issues caused by loneliness. “If a resident/patient sensing data indicates they are exhibiting signs of loneliness, it may trigger an alert for a loved one or healthcare provider to make a call or visit to that individual, before an issue has an opportunity to become chronic or have a negative impact on heart health,” adds Berke. 

Using nanomaterials to deliver drugs to treat TB and infectious lung diseases can provide numerous advantages over traditional drug delivery methods.

While NPs have been developed for TB over the past decade, the therapeutic systems have become prominent using diagnostic and therapeutic methods (theranostic). Theranostic approaches to TB management were designed to conduct nuclear imaging, optical imaging, ultrasound, imaging with magnetic resonance, and computed tomography. 

Problems with resistance to conventional TB drugs mean therapeutic methods require high doses of numerous medications over a longer time. Issues with the practical capabilities of traditional drugs for TB also exist. Solubility, stability, and penetration impact the drugs’ effectiveness. Traditional drugs may also create resistance over time, a relapse, and extend to other body parts, leading to secondary TB.  

Remote patient monitoring 

Remote patient monitoring (RPM) has emerged as a game-changer in managing chronic conditions, health irregularities and helps physicians provide personalised treatments based on patient data.   

One of the advantages of RPMs in managing heart health is the real time data delivery to clinicians. The devices allows doctors to detect irregular heart activity of their patients from the comfort of their home and reduces the need for in person visits. And during the Covid-19 lockdowns it proved to be very effective in a time when face to face visits were near non-existent.  

“When a physician detects abnormal heart activity via RPM devices, other factors that may be affecting the patients’ heart health come into mind (e.g., patients’ diet and exercise, genetics, etc.), aside from feelings of loneliness. By considering all these variable factors, doctors can then narrow down if any cardiac concerns are loneliness-related,” says Carlos. 

RPM devices can be very useful for monitoring discharged patients with underlying cardiovascular conditions. Unnecessary stress from loneliness has the potential to trigger further implication but with RPM devices the physician will be alerted to any serious changes. 

Sam Liu, VP of Marketing at a remote patient monitoring data company, Vivalink explains how RPM devices can reach a broader group of patients who are restricted from face to face clinic visits. “It provides continuity of care once a patient is discharged from the hospital by providing medical grade monitoring from the home,” says Liu. 

“Emotional and physiological stress often presents itself in the heart rhythm. By using wearable heart monitors that can monitor 24 hours over multiple days, providers can see a completer and more accurate picture of the patient’s heart, and provide proper diagnosis and prescription.” 

Despite RPM devices giving us a 24/7 picture of heart health it still removes an element of human interaction. GlobalData Medical Device Analyst Carlos said: “RPM devices may actually decrease the frequency of in-person interactions, since patients do not need to visit physicians to have their heart checked. As a result, the lack of in-person interactions may promote social isolation, which can spiral into loneliness.” 

It is evident that removing the human interaction for care is not ideal for patients with loneliness. “By using a combination of televisits and wearable heart monitoring devices, patients can receive care at their convenience and preference.” 

Despite increased isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic, the GlobalData implantable loop recorder (ILR) Market model for RPM devices for cardiac health monitoring fell by 14% in 2020. This was due to ILR implantations being a nonessential procedure in the pandemic. 

According to GlobalData’s US hospital purchasing database, ILR sales in the US fell by almost 30% in 2020. But had a rebound, post-COVID-19, in 2021 with the global ILR market bouncing back by approximately 13%. Not only did many face increased isolation but they also had less opportunities to have heart recording devices implemented.  

A cure for a lonely heart? 

Combating loneliness and its effects on heart health requires a multifaceted approach. Medical technology like RPM and ambient home sensors can play a crucial role, providing proactive care, reducing response times, and allowing healthcare professionals to intervene before issues escalate. 

However, experts emphasise that technology alone cannot replace human connection. The power of companionship, social engagement, and emotional support should never be underestimated. Community initiatives, support groups, and outreach programs remain essential in the battle against loneliness and its impact on heart health. By integrating technology and using it to alert us to the symptoms of loneliness we will be one step ahead of any serious risk caused by the feelings of loneliness. 

Combining the best of both worlds—medical technology and human compassion—we will help us achieve the best results to a cure for a lonely heart.