Effects of loneliness mimic aging process

May 1, 2012 By Karene Booker

The social pain of loneliness produces changes in the body that mimic the aging process and increase the risk of heart disease, reports a recent Cornell study published in Psychology and Aging (27:1). Changes in cardiovascular functioning are part of normal aging, but loneliness appears to accelerate the process, say the researchers.

To investigate the effects of age and on , the researchers measured cardiovascular reactivity and recovery in 91 young adults (18-30 years old) and 91 older adults (65-80 years old) who presented a speech and did mental arithmetic in a lab setting. Individual differences in perceived isolation (loneliness) were assessed before the tasks, and systolic and diastolic blood pressure measurements were taken before, during and after the tasks.

"The most striking thing we found was that the cardiovascular response of the lonely young adults to the social stressor task looked more like that of the nonlonely older adults," said lead author Anthony Ong, associate professor of human development in Cornell's College of and co-author of the study with Jeremy Rothstein '10, now at the Yale University School of Medicine Child Study Center, and Bert Uchino of the University of Utah.

As expected, they found that older adults had higher resting blood pressure, greater cardiovascular stress reactivity and longer cardiovascular recovery times compared with younger adults. Loneliness increased each of these measures but had even greater negative effects in older adults, putting them at the greatest risk. The recovery time of the lonely older adults, on average, was so delayed, they did not return to baseline levels during the two-hour-long follow-up period.

While prior studies had found a link between loneliness and stress-induced changes in cardiovascular responses, this is the first to look at young and in the same study and is among a select few to analyze cardiovascular recovery rate.

"I think it's helpful to distinguish the emotional pangs that are associated with acute loneliness from the more chronic feelings of distress that accompany perceived deficits in the quality of our social relationships," Ong said.

"Viewed from this perspective, acute loneliness may be seen as adaptive, signaling us to repair social connections. However, it is the persistence of loneliness over time that may set the stage for health problems in later life," Ong said. "I think one of the most important and life-affirming messages of this research is the reminder that we all desire and need meaningful social connections."

Explore further: How lonely you are may impact how well you sleep, research shows

Related Stories

How lonely you are may impact how well you sleep, research shows

November 1, 2011
Loneliness is not only heartbreaking, it breaks up a normal night's sleep, a new study shows. Researchers say compromised sleep may be one pathway by which feelings of loneliness adversely affect our health.

Older adults who sleep poorly react to stress with increased inflammation

March 1, 2012
Older adults who sleep poorly have an altered immune system response to stress that may increase risk for mental and physical health problems, according to a study led by a University of Rochester Medical Center researcher.

Recommended for you

A walk at the mall or the park? New study shows, for moms and daughters, a walk in the park is best

November 17, 2017
Spending time together with family may help strengthen the family bond, but new research from the University of Illinois shows that specifically spending time outside in nature—even just a 20-minute walk—together can ...

When male voles drink alcohol, but their partner doesn't, their relationship suffers

November 17, 2017
A study of the effect of alcohol on long-term relationships finds that when a male prairie vole has access to alcohol, but his female partner doesn't, the relationship suffers - similar to what has been observed in human ...

Risk of distracted driving predicted by age, gender, personality and driving frequency

November 17, 2017
New research identifies age, gender, personality and how often people drive as potential risk factors for becoming distracted while driving. Young men, extroverted or neurotic people, and people who drive more often were ...

Spanking linked to increase in children's behavior problems

November 16, 2017
Children who have been spanked by their parents by age 5 show an increase in behavior problems at age 6 and age 8 relative to children who have never been spanked, according to new findings in Psychological Science, a journal ...

Generous people give in a heartbeat—new study

November 15, 2017
Altruistic people are said to be "kind hearted" - and new research published in the journal Scientific Reports shows that generous people really are more in touch with their own hearts.

Teenage depression linked to father's depression

November 15, 2017
Adolescents whose fathers have depressive symptoms are more likely to experience symptoms of depression themselves, finds a new study led by UCL researchers.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.