Two psychologists at University of Chicago (John Cacioppo and Louise Hawkley) found a 30-point difference in systolic blood pressure readings between older Americans experiencing loneliness and those who are not lonely, suggesting that loneliness could increase the risk of death from stroke and heart disease. The 30 point difference would take someone from normal blood pressure of 120 up to Stage 1 hypertension of 150.
The differences were highest at retirement age, and these differences did not go away when controlling for perceived stress, symptoms of depression, weight, alcohol consumption, smoking, blood pressure medications and demographic characteristics
The paper (by Cacioppo, Hawkley, Masi and Berry), “Loneliness is a Unique Predictor of Age-Related Differences in Systolic Blood Pressure,” has been published in the journal Psychology and Aging.
The authors indicated that in a sense of social connectedness may have clinical benefits comparable to lifestyle modifications” (like weight loss or physical exercise).
229 people aged 50 to 68, who form the basis for the study are part of a long-term study on aging (and include Whites, Asians and Latinos). Respondents were rated on loneliness through questions 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.”
Cacioppo found earlier that loneliness increased “peripheral vascular resistance” in young people, or in other words an increase in resistance to blood flow brought on by their response to stress. Over time this could increase their blood pressure. “Lonely people differ from non-lonely individuals in their tendency to perceive stressful circumstances as threatening rather than challenging, and to passively cope with stress by failing to solicit instrumental and emotional support and by withdrawing from stress rather than actively coping and attempting to problem solve,” Cacioppo said. The latest research may well connect with Cacioppo’s earlier research and show the causal link over time.
Richard Suzman, director of the Behavioral and Social Research Program at the National Institute on Aging, and one of the funders of the research was “surprised by the magnitude of the relationship between loneliness and hypertension in this well-controlled cross-sectional study…One of NIA’s goals 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.”
For related research see this Psychology Today piece.
See article “The Science of Loneliness” (New Republic, Judith Shulevitz, May 2013)