Loneliness and Blood Pressure: Health advantages of family and friends
This last December my Grandma turned 91. She spent most of the month of December coordinating efforts with friends in her nursing home to put together gift boxes for needy children around the world. Some of the gift boxes went to kids in America who lost everything they owned in the Katrina disaster. One day when I met with my Grandma in early December she was excited about finding “a steal” on socks at a local discount store. She remembered when she was poor and very young that socks were the commodity she held most precious. If there is one thing I’ve learned from my Grandma over the years it is this: the best way to forget about your own troubles is to engulf yourself in helping to resolve the troubles of others. A recently released study suggests that one of the secrets to my Grandma’s longevity and good health may very well be her ability to make social connections throughout her lifetime. A study released in the March issue of the Journal of Psychology and Aging found that as you age, loneliness can be as bad for your blood pressure as smoking or an inactive lifestyle.
Funded by the National Institute on Aging, the research study was based on 229 people in the Chicago area aged 50 to 68. The loneliest people in the study had blood pressure readings 30 points higher that those who weren’t lonely. This research suggests that loneliness as you age can be as bad for your heart and blood pressure as smoking, drinking, high body mass index or a sedentary lifestyle.
Louise Hawkley, lead author of the study, stated “the magnitude of the association [between loneliness and high blood pressure] is quite stunning.”
Earlier research conducted by John Cacioppo, one of the co-authors of the study, found college students who felt socially isolated had increased vascular tension (a narrowing of blood vessels that increases the resistance to blood flow). Although the young bodies of the college students could compensate for this condition to prevent high blood pressure, Cacioppo hypothesized that older individuals might have increased blood pressure resulting from loneliness.
Cacioppo stresses that loneliness is a “unique and psychological reaction” and should not be confused with stress and depression. Although the condition of loneliness is “clouded in mystery,” this study and others suggest social connectedness plays an important and unique role in overall good health. Other studies suggest that susceptibility to loneliness is partially determined by genetics in what Cacioppo calls the “selfish gene” leading to the “lonely brain.”
An estimated 11 million Americans over the age of 50 feel isolated. As people grow old, both friends and family exit their lives due to moving away, retiring, falling ill, or dying.
This study emphasizes
the importance of maintaining and replenishing social relationships through
the life cycle for both mental and physical well-being. Hawley, the lead
author of the study, suggests that helping older people get involved with
volunteer work might be one effective strategy for avoiding loneliness, and
as it turns out, high blood pressure.
Lonely and over 50? Check your blood pressure. The Associated Press. MSNBC.com. March 28, 2006.
Hutson S. Absence makes the heart grow weaker. NewScientist.com. March 28, 2006.
Loneliness Linked to High Blood Pressure in Aging Adults. ScienceDaily. March 28, 2006.
Hawkley L, Cacioppo J, Masi C, Berry J. Loneliness is a Unique Predictor of Age-Related Differences in Systolic Blood Pressure. Psychology and Aging. DOI: 10.1037/0882-7974.21.1. March 2006.
Compiled by Betty Holmes, MS, RD
to Thought Bullets--main page.
Return to home page.