Social support helps older people recover from heart attacks, and a new study shows the same may be true when the heart attack patient is young or middle-aged.
Young heart attack patients tend to have better physical and mental health afterward if they have close friends and family who care about them, the study found.
The finding may eventually help doctors and other healthcare workers identify young people who may benefit from additional social support after a heart attack, the researchers write in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
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"Things like love and friendship make a big difference in the recovery of heart attacks," said Dr. Harlan Krumholz, the study's senior author from the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.
"The traditional focus on pills and procedures should be accompanied by special attention to the individual," he added.
Analysing social support after heart attack
For the new research, the researchers used data from a study of 3,432 young Spanish and American heart attack patients who were asked about their social support. The participants were between ages 18 and 55 years.
The research was focused on young women, who traditionally have worse outcomes compared to their male counterparts after heart attacks. Perhaps social support played a role in the difference, Krumholz told Reuters Health.
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Overall, 21 percent of the participants were considered to have low social support, based on questions that asked whether the person had someone who listens and cares for them, offers advice, loves them and offers emotional support.
The amount of social support was evenly distributed between men and women, the researchers found.
At the first evaluation, the researchers found the people with low social support were more likely to be single, unemployed, live alone, and smoke and drink excessively. They were also more likely to have risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure and diabetes.
A year later, the people with low social support had lower mental functioning, lower quality of life and higher depression scores than those with some or a lot of social support.
The size of the effect was similar in men and women. "We failed to find a difference," Krumholz said.
Overall, the effect from low social support was small, but Krumholz said even small differences are important.
"I wouldn't dismiss the importance of this," he said. "I think for some people it can be very important. By itself, it's modest, but so are most things we do in the recovery period. Why not try and line it all together?"
How does social support affect recovery?
The researchers can't say how social support affects recovery, however.
It could be that social support instils a feeling that encourages heart patients to do better, for example. But it can also be that people with more social support are in better health and have someone to take care of them during recovery.
"It would be great to understand this better, but since there are little side effects to love and friendship, I think we should be encouraging people to pay attention to the people around them," Krumholz said. "There is a strong possibility that these things play a role in recovery."
Dr. Leslie Cho, director of the Cleveland Clinic's Women's Cardiovascular Centre in Ohio, said it's also important for healthcare providers to pay attention to their patients' social support systems.
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"It's not all on patients to seek their own help and find their own support group," she said. "I think it's part of good comprehensive medical care."
People may be able to use cardiac rehab programs that work with patients after a heart attack or similar event as a support group, said Cho, who was not involved with the new study.
Additionally, she said to check at local American Heart Association offices for information on support groups.
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Image: Holding hand of patient from Shutterstock