Lonely people face higher risk of heart disease

Lonely people have a greater risk of heart disease, possibly due to differences in how their cardiovascular system reacts in times of stress rather than because of unhealthy behaviors, according to a new study published in the May/June issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

The study shows that when performing mentally and emotionally stressful tasks, lonely college students had increased blood pressure due to increased resistance to blood flow that may be harmful in the long run. In contrast, non-lonely students had increased blood pressure from increased cardiac output, a more normal response to stress.

The lonely students had resistance to blood flow before the stressors too, suggesting that these cardiovascular differences were pervasive.

In a parallel study of older subjects, systolic blood pressure rose with age in lonely men and women while it remained more stable in men and women who were not lonely.

Differences in the [mechanisms of blood flow] observed throughout the session in younger adults may contribute to elevated blood pressure across time in lonely adults, says John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., of the University of Chicago.

Both chronically high blood pressure and vascular resistance have been linked to increased risks of heart disease.

The study also showed that lonely people were no different from the non-lonely in terms of behavioral risk factors such as drinking, smoking, diet and compliance with medical treatments. The authors suggest that this may mean researchers need to look elsewhere to understand the apparent increased risk of disease in the lonely.

For instance, Cacioppo and colleagues found that although lonely individuals slept as many hours as non-lonely individuals, sleep for the lonely was less restorative. They suggest that restorative behaviors in generally may be less effective in lonely than non-lonely individuals.

The first study included 45 male and 44 female undergraduate studen

Contact: Josh Schonwald
Center for the Advancement of Health

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