The social pain of loneliness produces changes in the body that mimic the aging process and increase the risk of heart disease, a new study has found.
As people get older, their cardiovascular functions diminish - but loneliness appears to accelerate the process, explained researchers at Cornell.
For the study researchers investigated 182 men - split between 18-30-year-olds and 65-80-year-olds, who were asked to perform a speech and complete some mental arithmetic in a laboratory.
The men were given blood pressure readings before, during and after the test, and assessed about their social bonds.
As expected, older adults had higher resting blood pressure, greater cardiovascular stress reactivity and longer cardiovascular recovery times compared with younger adults.
Those men who perceived themselves as lonely had increased measurements across the board - and the effect was even more pronounced 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.
“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 non-lonely older adults,” the Daily Mail lead author Anthony Ong, associate professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, as saying.
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 older adults in the same study and is among a select few to analyse 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.
“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,” he added.
The National Institute on Aging and the Bronfenbrenner Center supported the research for Translational Research.