Loneliness may be hazardous to your health


Globe and Mail Update

A heavy heart may be just as bad for the body as it is for the soul, according to a new study.

Loneliness has been found to be a major risk factor in increasing blood pressure in older people, and because of this could increase the risk of death by stroke and heart disease, according to researchers at the University of Chicago.

“The major causes of morbidity and mortality have changed from infectious to cardiovascular diseases,” co-authors Louise Hawkley and John Cacioppo wrote in their study. Their findings may be of clinical interest because high blood pressure is a well recognized risk factor for cardiovascular disease, the researchers said.

In their paper, “Loneliness is a Unique Predictor of Age-Related Differences in Systolic Blood Pressure,” published in the March issue of the journal Psychology and Aging, the pair found lonely people between the ages of 50 and 68 had blood pressure readings that were as much as 30 points higher than non-lonely people, even when other contributing factors were taken into consideration.

“Loneliness is a complex physiological phenomenon that incorporates feelings of dysphoria (opposite of euphoria) and stress, dissatisfaction with social support and hostility towards others,” according to the paper. It has already been associated with higher incidences of other health issues, including alcoholism, depression, and insomnia, and even impaired immune functions, according to the authors.

The increase in blood pressure associated with loneliness is about the same magnitude as reductions attained through weight loss and regular physical activity in people suffering from hypertension. By these standards, improving ones sense of social connectedness could have clinical benefits comparable to lifestyle modifications, the authors wrote.

The team based their research on a study of 229 people aged 50 to 68. Participants were randomly chosen and asked to rate its connections with others through a series of topics, such as “I have a lot in common with the people around me,” “My social relationships are superficial,” and “I can find companionship when I want it.”

The research team took into consideration other factors like race, weight, alcohol consumption, smoking, blood pressure medications, and demographic characteristics and found that people who rated high on being lonely had a significantly higher blood pressure than non-lonely people with similar profiles on the other measures.

More research is required to determine the exact causal relationship, however the researchers did offer some possible explanations.

“Lonely people differ from non-lonely individuals in their tendency to perceive stressful circumstances as threatening rather than challenging,” Dr. Cacioppo said in a statement. “[Lonely people] passively cope with stress by failing to solicit instrumental and emotional support and by withdrawing from stress rather than by actively coping and attempting to problem solve.”