science


By Robin Lloyd, Special to LiveScience

posted: 31 March 2006 10:14 am EST

It’s true—you might die of loneliness, but not until you’re older.

In a new University of Chicago study of men and women 50 to 68 years old, those who scored highest on measures of loneliness also had higher blood pressure. And high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease, the number one killer in many industrialized nations and number two the United States.

Lonely people have blood pressure readings as much as 30 points higher than non-lonely people, said the study leaders Louise Hawkley and Christopher Masi. Blood pressure differences between lonely and non-lonely people were smallest at age 50 and greatest among the oldest people tested.

Richard Suzman of the National Institute on Aging, which funded this research, said he was “surprised by the magnitude of the relationship between loneliness and hypertension in this well-controlled, cross-sectional study.”

Nothing worse

The researchers separated loneliness out from depression, age, race, gender, weight, alcohol consumption, smoking, blood pressure medications, hostility, stress, social support and other factors.

Also, loneliness does eat at you. The morbid health effect of loneliness accumulates gradually and faster as you get older, the study found. Loneliness was worse for blood pressure than any other psychological or social factor the researchers studied.

Weight loss and physical exercise reduce blood pressure by the same amount that loneliness increases it. Hawkley said this finding especially surprised her.

“It’s comparable to the effects you see for the health benefits that are so often advocated such as exercise [to] keep your blood pressure under control,” Hawkley told LiveScience.

Who is lonely

About one in five Americans is lonely, a gnawing emotional state that is a patchwork of feeling unhappy, stressed out, friendless and hostile.

The main psychological difference between lonely and non-lonely people is that the former perceive stressful circumstances as threatening rather than challenging and cope passively and withdraw from stress rather than trying to solve the problem, said study co-author John T. Cacioppo.

Lonely people who are middle-aged and older tend to also have problems with alcoholism, depression, weak immune system responses to illness, impaired sleep and suicide.

Some psychologists think that associations between loneliness and health or physiology are just part of a generic stress response, but this new research suggests loneliness has a unique impact.

More to come

Social trends in the United States suggest a recipe for greater loneliness and thus higher blood pressure and risk of heart disease. The population is aging and more people move around and live alone than ever, contributing to greater separation from caring friends and family.

Data for the study, announced this week and published in the journal Psychology and Aging, were collected in 2001. Future research could demonstrate if loneliness causes higher blood pressure, or is simply associated with it.

Meanwhile, it’s probably a good idea to nurture those special friendships, marry, or at least get a decent roommate if you want to keep your blood pressure down and beat down your odds of getting heart disease.

 http://www.livescience.com/health/060331_loneliness.html

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An article in Science Daily reports that loneliness does damage to the body at a molecular level.”What this study shows is that the biological impact of social isolation reaches down into some of our most basic internal processes the activity of our genes.”

“We found that what counts at the level of gene expression is not how many people you know, it’s how many you feel really close to over time,” said Steve Cole, an associate professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine.

“We found that changes in immune cell gene expression were specifically linked to the subjective experience of social distance. The differences we observed were independent of other known risk factors, such as health status, age, weight, and medication use. The changes were even independent of the objective size of a person’s social network.”Genes overexpressed in lonely individuals included many involved in immune system activation and inflammation. But interestingly, several other key gene sets were underexpressed, including those involved in antiviral responses and antibody production.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/09/070913081048.htm