It is estimated that loneliness afflicts approximately 20% of Americans. Loneliness includes feelings of isolation, disconnectedness, and not belonging. Loneliness has been associated with an increased risk of death and a wide range of health problems in older adults, including alcoholism , depression , impaired immune function, and elevated blood pressure .

A new study in the March 2006 issue of Psychology and Aging examined the effects of loneliness in a group of middle-aged and older adults, and found that loneliness was associated with significant increases in systolic blood pressure (the “top number”).

About the Study

Researchers from the University of Chicago analyzed a group of 229 people ages 50-68 living in Cook County, Illinois. The participants had their blood pressures measured and answered questionnaires designed to assess their level of loneliness, depression, stress, social support, and hostility.

The participants who scored in the top third of the loneliness scale (indicating they were the loneliest) had systolic blood pressure levels 10-30 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) higher that those who scored in the bottom third, even after taking into account other factors that may be associated with elevated blood pressure (e.g., depressive symptoms, perceived stress). This loneliness effect was stronger among older individuals, with loneliness being associated with larger increases in systolic blood pressure with each year of age.

This study is limited because it cannot determine whether loneliness causes elevated blood pressure. A study that follows participants over a number of years would be a better indicator of causation.

How Does This Affect You?

These findings suggest that being lonely is associated with an increased risk of elevated systolic blood pressure. This is of great consequence, since elevated blood pressure places individuals at risk for strokes , coronary heart disease , kidney failure and blindness among other serious complications. A 20 mm Hg elevation in systolic blood pressure, for example, has been associated with a doubled risk of death from stroke and coronary heart disease.

While researchers have yet to determine whether loneliness causes elevated blood pressure, this study suggests that your level of loneliness may have a significant impact on your cardiovascular risk. If you find yourself feeling lonely, reach out to family and friends. Finding companionship will certainly help you feel better emotionally, and it may also help improve your health.