Lonely Older Adults Have Higher Blood Pressures
Humans have a fundamental need for inclusion in close relationships and when one is lonely, the depression and stress they encounter can bring on many negative health conditions. Researchers from the University of Chicago have linked loneliness in people age 50 and older with higher levels of blood pressure.
The study involved 229 adults aged 50-68 who were of various ethnic backgrounds. The participants were asked a series of questions to determine if they perceived themselves as lonely. They rated their agreement with such statements such as “I have a lot in common with people around me” and “I can find companionship when I want it.”
Other factors that involve a greater risk for high blood pressure, such as body mass index, smoking, alcohol use, and demographic differences were accounted for.
Those who considered themselves the loneliest had blood pressures higher by 14.4 millimeters of mercury more than those who were the most socially contented over the course of the four-year study period.
Louise Hawkley, senior research scientist with the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and lead author of the study, said that depression and stress may account for some of the increase, but could not fully explain the connection. “Loneliness is characterized by a motivational impulse to connect with others but also a fear of negative evaluation, rejection, and disappointment,” she said.
The cognitive awareness and emotional discomfort and distress from loneliness or emptiness can lead to an excess of stress hormones that cause damage over time to many body systems. Epinephrine, for example, can have long-term effects on heart disease. Stress hormones als are involved in the immune system function, and stress from loneliness over time can lead to a wear and tear on the body. Doctors believe that the stress from unmet social needs can contribute to an erosion of the arteries, creating high blood pressure.
“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."
Hawkley et al. Loneliness predicts increased blood pressure: 5-year cross-lagged analyses in middle-aged and older adults.. Psychology and Aging, 2010; 25 (1): 132 DOI: 10.1037/a0017805