The physical toll of loneliness

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Loneliness doesn’t just cause wear and tear on the psyche -- it may also affect blood pressure, as a new study reveals.

Researchers surveyed 229 people ages 50 to 68 who were part of the Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study, a longitudinal study of white, black and Latino men and women. They were given a survey in which they were asked to rate their feelings about questions such as, ‘I lack companionship,’ ‘I feel in tune with the people around me,’ and ‘My social relationships are superficial.’ Other features about the participants were noted, such as smoking status, physical activity levels, body mass index and cardiovascular health.


The participants were monitored for five years. Researchers noted an association between feelings of loneliness and high blood pressure. People who ranked as feeling most lonely had blood pressure levels 14.4 points higher than those who felt least lonely. Increases in systolic blood pressure were cumulative, so those who had higher levels of loneliness at the beginning of the study had greater blood pressure increases over the years. The findings held true when researchers accounted for factors such as age, race and ethnicity, gender, cardiovascular risk factors and depression.

‘Loneliness is characterized by a motivational impulse to connect with others but also a fear of negative evaluation, rejection and disappointment,’ said Louise Hawkley, senior research scientist with the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, in a news release. Hawkley, lead author of the study, added, ‘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.’

The study appears in the March issue of the journal Psychology and Aging.

-- Jeannine Stein