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Loneliness May Drive Up Blood Pressure

Effect Grows Greater With Age, Study Shows
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 29, 2006 -- Blood pressure and loneliness might be related, especially in older adults, new research shows.

The University of Chicago's Louise Hawkley, PhD, and colleagues studied 229 people aged 50-68 in Cook County, Ill. Participants got their blood pressure checked and took surveys gauging loneliness, depression, and hostility.

Systolic blood pressure (the first number in a blood pressure reading) was 10-30 points higher in participants with the highest scores on the loneliness survey, compared to those with the lowest loneliness scores.

That pattern was strongest in the oldest participants. Blood pressure naturally rises with age, and loneliness might boost blood pressure further, the researchers write.

Their study, published in Psychology and Aging, includes three key messages.

Message No.1: Get Connected

Curbing loneliness might be good for your health.

High blood pressure can lead to heart disease, stroke, and many other health problems. Diet and exercise have already been shown to help blood pressure. Consider these facts cited in Hawkley's study:

  • Losing 22 pounds can trim five to 20 points off systolic blood pressure.
  • Getting regular physical activity can cut four to nine points off systolic blood pressure.

Loneliness might belong on that list, too, the researchers note.

"By these standards, improvements in a sense of social connectedness may have clinical benefits comparable to, if not greater than, lifestyle modifications," they write, adding that they haven't proven that theory.

Got a sparse social network? No worries. Loneliness is more about the quality, not quantity, of your connections, write Hawkley and colleagues.

Message No. 2: Watch Your Perspective

Loneliness isn't just isolation. It may also be related to a person's outlook.

Hawkley's team lists ways that lonely people differ from those who aren't lonely:

  • Lonely people tend to perceive stressful circumstances as threatening rather than challenging.
  • Lonely people tend to passively cope with stress by not asking for support and by withdrawing from the stress instead of actively coping and attempting to problem-solve.

Loneliness is a normal human emotion that many people experience at some point in their lives. The question is whether it starts to take over.

For instance, participants rated how often they felt stressed in the past week. They also noted how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements including:

  • "I lack companionship."
  • "I feel in tune with the people around me."
  • "There is someone I can turn to for advice about handling problems with my family."
  • "If I wanted to have lunch with someone, I could easily find someone to join me."

Of course, therapy is an option for people who want help in changing their outlook.

Message No. 3: Start Now

The sooner loneliness is limited, the better, Hawkley's research suggests.

In her new study, loneliness and blood pressure were most strongly linked in the oldest participants. Hawkley's past research suggests that that pattern may start much earlier.

Hawkley and colleagues had previously studied loneliness in younger people. In young adults, loneliness wasn't tied to blood pressure. But over time, systolic blood pressure might increase in older adults who are "less physiologically resilient," the researchers write.

The new study doesn't prove that loneliness raises blood pressure. Still, it can't hurt to build good relationships.

Hawkley's team also found that lonely people weren't less likely to get medical care or take prescribed medicines. The study's findings "cannot be explained by poorer access to and use of medical services," the researchers write.

The study only checked loneliness and blood pressure once. The researchers call for studies to track loneliness in people over time.

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