Features June 2010 Issue

Staying Social May Control Hypertension

Research shows that feelings of loneliness can contribute to high blood pressure.

Lonely people are at higher risk of developing high blood pressure in later life, according to a study published in the March issue of Psychology and Aging. Researchers found that chronic feelings of loneliness

push up blood pressure (BP) over time.

Such a rise can impact cardiovascular health, says psychiatrist Leo Pozuelo, MD, associate director of Cleveland Clinic’s Bakken Heart-Brain Institute. "High BP is a key contributor to heart disease," he says. "It causes the arteries to narrow and become stiff, which is a major risk factor for heart attacks and stroke, and forces the heart to work harder." Uncontrolled high BP is the primary or a contributing cause of about 18 percent of deaths in the U.S.

Researchers looked at 229 people, ages 50 to 68, and asked them a series of questions to determine whether they considered themselves lonely. The results showed a clear connection between feelings of loneliness reported at the study outset and rising blood pressure from about two years into the four-year follow-up. The loneliest people saw their blood pressure go up by 14.4 mmHg (millimeters of mercury) more than the blood pressure of their most socially contented counterparts.

The heart-brain connection

Dr. Pozuelo notes that this is the heart-brain connection at work. "Loneliness can result in stress, anxiety and fear of rejection," he explains. "These emotions can raise your resting heart rate, elevate stress hormones, and increase BP."

The increase in BP associated with loneliness in the study is about the same as BP reductions attained through weight loss and regular physical activity, suggesting that improvements in a sense of social connectedness could have clinical benefits comparable to lifestyle modifications. "There is evidence that heart patients who participate in a cardiac rehab program that provides social connectedness have better outcomes in heart rate, blood pressure, as well as increased achievement of exercise and diet objectives," Dr. Pozuelo says.

Unfortunately, an active social life can be difficult for older adults to achieve, since aging often is accompanied by a shrinking social network as friends slow down, succumb to poor health, or move into long-term residential care. Many older adults have to get out and find new friends. Local senior centers are a good source (there are more than 15,000 in the U.S., according to the National Council on Aging), and they provide a range of social outings and events as well as health and wellness information. Your church also can be a source of support. Assisted-living facilities or retirement communities also are an option for older adults who are alone, offering the opportunity to mix with others of a similar age and life stage.