Aug. 20, 2007 -- Feeling lonely may take its toll on your health as well as your happiness as you get older.
A new study suggests that the unhealthy effects of loneliness accumulate with time and may contribute to the wear and tear of stress and aging on your body.
Researchers compared stress levels among college undergraduates (average age 19) and middle-aged and older people (average age 57) and found that although lonely people reported the same number of major life events as others, they were more likely to report more chronic stressors and unhappy childhood events.
They found that in the older group, lonely adults had higher blood pressure readings than older adults who were not lonely. This wasn't seen with the college group. In addition, urine samples showed that the older group of lonely people had significantly higher levels of the stress hormone epinephrine.
This hormone is involved in the “fight or flight” response in the body, and researchers say elevated epinephrine levels suggest that lonely people live in a heightened sense of arousal, which could have long-term effects on heart disease and other health problems.
To see if the effects of loneliness increased over time, researchers Louise Hawkley and John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago studied a group of college students and another group of older adults between the ages of 50 and 68.
The results showed that not only did lonely people perceive their past in a more negative light, but they were also more likely to feel helpless and threatened in their current situations and, ironically, less likely to seek help when they were stressed out.
Researchers also monitored the sleep of the younger lonely participants and found that although they appeared to be getting as much sleep as normal volunteers, their sleep was disturbed throughout the night. Therefore, they suffered from poor-quality sleep and were more likely to have problems during the day as a result.
Researchers say the unhealthy effects of lack of sleep and heightened stress may accentuate the wear and tear of aging on the body and raise the risk of health problems associated with aging among older lonely people.
The results appear in the Current Directions in Psychological Science.