A new study finds that long-term feelings of loneliness can increase blood pressure in middle-aged and older adults.
University of Chicago researchers studied 229 people between the ages of 50 to 68 and discovered blood pressure appears to rise after four years of loneliness.
The study shows, for the first time, a direct relation between loneliness and increases in blood pressure — a link that is independent of age and other factors that could cause blood pressure to rise, including body-mass index, smoking, alcohol use and demographic differences such as race and income.
The researchers also looked at the possibility that depression and stress might account for the increase but found that those factors did not fully explain the increase in blood pressure among lonely people 50 years and older.
“Loneliness behaved as though it is a unique health-risk factor in its own right,” wrote researcher Louise Hawkley in an article, “Loneliness Predicts Increased Blood Pressure,” published in the current issue of the journal Psychology and Aging.
High blood pressure, often called a silent threat as it has few symptoms, undermines health in many ways. It increases the risk for heart attack and stroke and impairs kidney function.
Like blood pressure, loneliness is sometimes not easy to detect. People who have many friends and a social network can feel lonely if they find their relationships unsatisfying, Hawkley said.
Conversely, people who live rather solitary lives may not be lonely if their few relationships are meaningful and rewarding.
The researchers’ randomly chosen group included whites, African-Americans and Latinos who were part of a long-term study on aging. Members of the group were asked a series of questions to determine if they perceived themselves as lonely.
They were asked to rate 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.”
During the five-year study, Hawkley found a clear connection between feelings of loneliness reported at the beginning of the study and rising blood pressure over that period.
“The increase associated with loneliness wasn’t observable until two years into the study, but then continued to increase until four years later,” she said.
Even people with modest levels of loneliness were impacted. Among all the people in the sample, the loneliest people saw their blood pressure go up by 14.4 mm more than the blood pressure of their most socially contented counterparts over the four-year study period.
Lonely people’s apprehension about social connections may underlie the blood pressure increase.
“Loneliness is characterized by a motivational impulse to connect with others but also a fear of negative evaluation, rejection and disappointment,” Hawkley said.
“We hypothesize that threats to one’s sense of safety and security with others are toxic components of loneliness, and that hypervigilance for social threat may contribute to alterations in physiological functioning, including elevated blood pressure.”
Source: University of Chicago