Loneliness linked to health risk
and World Science staff
Researchers have found that loneliness is linked to high blood pressure, and thus to a significant health risk, in older people.
Now, U.S. government health researchers say they’ll be examining ways to ease loneliness in the population.
Loneliness could increase the risk of death from stroke and heart disease, the University of Chicago scientists said, and reducing loneliness could yield health improvements similar to those that come from weight loss and regular physical activity.
The researchers found in a study that lonely people have blood pressure readings as much as 30 points higher than other people. That was true even when other factors such as depressive symptoms or perceived stress were taken into account, said the university’s Louise Hawkley.
The gap is equivalent to the difference between a normal blood pressure of 120 and a level of 150, which signifies “Stage 1 hypertension,” the researchers said. Stage 1 is relatively mild form of hypertension, or abnormally high blood pressure.
Blood pressure differences between lonely and other people were smallest at age 50 and greatest among the oldest adults tested, those at retirement age, according to the researchers. They reported the finding in the March issue of the research journal Psychology and Aging.
The team based their research on a study of 229 people aged 50 to 68. The randomly chosen group included whites, African Americans and Latinos.
Participants were asked questions to determine if they perceived themselves as lonely. They were asked to rate themselves on 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 also found that loneliness augments normal, aging-associated increases in blood pressure.
“Lonely people differ from non-lonely individuals in their tendency to perceive stressful circumstances as threatening rather than challenging,” Chicago University’s John Cacioppo, a co-author, said.
A previous study on young people showed that stress caused blood vessels to increase their resistance to blood flow, according to the researchers. Thus greater resistance to the flow in lonely people might increase blood pressure over their lifetimes, Cacioppo said; studies are underway to look at how loneliness may contribute to this process.
“I’m surprised by the magnitude of the relationship between loneliness and hypertension” in the study, said Richard Suzman, director of the Behavioral and Social Research Program at the National Institute on Aging, a funder of the research.
He added that a goal of the institute, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., is “to help determine what can be done to improve the quality of relationships and social connectedness as a way to ease loneliness and reduce blood pressure.”
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