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.
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