The Lonely Hearts Club




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
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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

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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