The Lonely Hearts Club




One tree in snow blue sky

Loneliness is a complex set of emotions that encompasses feelings of social isolation, unfilled intimate needs, and heightened feelings of vulnerability. Though transient for some people, chronic loneliness can take a physical and psychological toll on individuals, leading to increased morbidity and mortality. Specifically, new research indicates that loneliness raises blood pressure – a silent killer that increases the risk for other cardiovascular conditions, as well as vision loss, kidney dysfunction, and memory deficits.

A team of researchers at the University of Chicago has been researching the effects of loneliness among residents of Cook County, Illinois for the past several years. The study participants are men and women between 50 and 68 years old, and include Caucasians, African Americans, and Latinos. Each year, the 229 participants are physically examined and asked questions about their quality of life, including feelings of loneliness and social relationships. The researchers published the findings relating to blood pressure in the journal Psychology and Aging.

Over the 5-year period in which data was collected, lonely people exhibited a larger increase in blood pressure than their non-lonely counterparts. The loneliest people showed a significant increase in systolic blood pressure that was 14.4 mm Hg higher than the most socially-connected individuals. According to the authors, the increase in blood pressure was not apparent until 2 years into the study, but continued throughout the remainder of the data-collection period. The increase in blood pressure was independent of other contributing variables such as body mass index, smoking status, age, alcohol use, race, and income.

As the current study emphasizes, loneliness is a unique risk factor for poor health outcomes. Depression and stress are related conditions that may contribute to the health-related consequences of loneliness, but they do not explain all the findings that have been attributed to loneliness. Related research has linked loneliness to physical inactivity, decreased autonomic, immune and endocrine systems functioning, and sleep disturbances.

Unfortunately, loneliness is often difficult to detect. The size of a person’s social network is not always indicative of loneliness; a large network of acquaintances may lack significant satisfying associations, while a small, close-knit group may contain meaningful and rewarding relationships. Humans need a safe, secure environment in which to thrive, and humans fundamentally desire to connect with others. Without these connections, social engagements are threatened and physiological functions are impaired.

Loneliness is increasing, owing to social and demographic trends that weaken traditional community structures and remove person-to-person contact from everyday functions. With the increased knowledge that loneliness affects individual health and society at large, interventions to decrease loneliness are important. Improved social skills, enhanced social support, and increased opportunities for social contact are critical to meaningful personal connections that may literally save lives.

References

Cacioppo JT, Ernst JM, Burleson MH, McClintock MK, Malarkey WB, Hawkley LC, Kowalewski RB, Paulsen A, Hobson JA, Hugdahl K, Spiegel D, & Berntson GG (2000). Lonely traits and concomitant physiological processes: the MacArthur social neuroscience studies. International journal of psychophysiology : official journal of the International Organization of Psychophysiology, 35 (2-3), 143-54 PMID: 10677643

Cacioppo JT, Hawkley LC, Crawford LE, Ernst JM, Burleson MH, Kowalewski RB, Malarkey WB, Van Cauter E, & Berntson GG (2002). Loneliness and health: potential mechanisms. Psychosomatic medicine, 64 (3), 407-17 PMID: 12021415

Cacioppo JT, Hawkley LC, & Thisted RA (2010). Perceived social isolation makes me sad: 5-year cross-lagged analyses of loneliness and depressive symptomatology in the Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study. Psychology and aging, 25 (2), 453-63 PMID: 20545429

Hawkley LC, & Cacioppo JT (2003). Loneliness and pathways to disease. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 17 Suppl 1 PMID: 12615193
Hawkley LC, Cacioppo JT. Loneliness matters: a theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Ann Behav Med 2010;40(2):218-27. PMID: 20652462

Hawkley LC, Masi CM, Berry JD, & Cacioppo JT (2006). Loneliness is a unique predictor of age-related differences in systolic blood pressure. Psychology and aging, 21 (1), 152-64 PMID: 16594800

Hawkley LC, Preacher KJ, & Cacioppo JT (2010). Loneliness impairs daytime functioning but not sleep duration. Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 29 (2), 124-9 PMID: 20230084

Hawkley LC, Thisted RA, & Cacioppo JT (2009). Loneliness predicts reduced physical activity: cross-sectional & longitudinal analyses. Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 28 (3), 354-63 PMID: 19450042

Hawkley LC, Thisted RA, Masi CM, & Cacioppo JT (2010). Loneliness predicts increased blood pressure: 5-year cross-lagged analyses in middle-aged and older adults. Psychology and aging, 25 (1), 132-41 PMID: 20230134

Masi CM, Chen HY, Hawkley LC, & Cacioppo JT (2010). A Meta-Analysis of Interventions to Reduce Loneliness. Personality and social psychology review : an official journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc PMID: 20716644

Steptoe A, Owen N, Kunz-Ebrecht SR, & Brydon L (2004). Loneliness and neuroendocrine, cardiovascular, and inflammatory stress responses in middle-aged men and women. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 29 (5), 593-611 PMID: 15041083

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  • George Dusko

    In the last year I went through a unwanted divorce and lost contact with my two step children of 12 years. In the same year I lost my mom a sister and my step father. I went from a deep and strong support group to living with two dogs. My health is deminished and sleep is irradic. Lonelyness is life threatening, I am a perfect example. The hardest thing is that it builds upon itself. You become less of who you were, more withdrawn and lose social skills. Work is all I really have for interaction. I guess I need direction.

    • http://none sharon

      george do volunteer work, pray. i just retired after 20 years of property management. i filled my hours with work, my family is in different states and parents have passed away. i volunteer, pray for others and am writing my bio. i also look at events at the library and community activities. nevr bored sharon

  • Tag

    I know your pain. Married 28 yrs to a drunk I really thought I could change. Lost one daughter to his disease. Lost my father in 2005. Moved twice since 2003. At 50+ had to start my life from scratch. I just shut out everyone these days.

  • Alejandro

    I wonder whether there has been any research to test the hypothesis that there may be a direct relation between loneliness, as a subjectively perceived feeling of isolation, and attachment, as a personality trait. For equal conditions, I would expect high attachment personalities to feel more lonely. Conversely, low attachment personalities might be less prone to loneliness.

  • F.A

    I was wondering if you have an idea of (who is the) photographer for that tree’s image you’ve uploaded!

    PS: to decrease lonliness! isn’t that the idea of societies politicmen whom want to control people/society by putting/pushing!? them together!?Happy together…
    well,as G.G.Markez say,there is a huge difference between who remained lonely and who choose it!

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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