Loneliness can cause or exacerbate high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and even Alzheimer’s
Have you ever felt alone? That no one understands you? That you have no one to turn to? Maybe your relationships aren’t what they used to be. Perhaps your children have moved far away. Maybe age or your health puts limits on your activity level, so you aren’t as social as you used to be.
The gap between what you desire from social relationships and what you actually receive from social relationships is loneliness. When it is long-lasting it can affect more than just your mental well-being. It can also impact your heart health.
You’re not alone in your loneliness
Loneliness affects 60 million Americans. In the age of Facebook and online connections, we are feeling more lonely than ever. It’s an epidemic sweeping our nation, and wreaking havoc on Americans’ health.
Studies have shown the following affects of loneliness:
- Loneliness increases the risk of early death by 45% and the chance of developing dementia in later life by 64%.
- Extreme loneliness can increase premature death in older adults by 14%.
- Loneliness has twice the impact on early death than obesity.
- Loneliness is a form of stress, causing an inflammatory response, which harms the blood vessels and heart.
Being lonely is extremely bad for your health
Why does loneliness have such a major impact on our health? It’s just a feeling, right? True, but this feeling is powerful enough to affect all the major systems of your body. If you’re lonely, you’re more likely to have depression, disrupted sleep, hardening of the arteries, increased blood pressure, impaired mental function, a diminished immune system, and a decrease in physical activity and an increase in obesity. It even impacts cancer — tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.
What’s happening in your body that loneliness throws so many systems out of whack?
Loneliness –> Impaired immune system
One UCLA study revealed that a lonely person’s body lowers its defenses against invaders. How? The human immune system can only fight so many threats. It has to focus on either viral threats or bacterial invasions. To lonely people, the world is viewed as a threatening place. Their immune systems choose to focus on bacteria rather than viral threats. The result is a lessened ability to fight cancers and other illnesses.
Loneliness –> Stressed cardiovascular system
Loneliness is a form of stress. It increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This increases blood pressure. Loneliness causes the heart to work harder and potentially causes damage to the blood vessels.
Loneliness –> Poor sleep
Research shows that lonely people are less rested people. They wake often in the night. They spend less time in bed actually sleeping than others. By lessening the quality of sleep, loneliness steels away the physical and psychological restorative benefits of sleep.
Loneliness –> Heightened stress response
According to research, the brains of lonely people demonstrate different reactions to stress than others. A situation that would be mildly stressful for most, such as public speaking, causes the release of epinephrine. This response is similar in both lonely and non-lonely individuals. However, those who experience loneliness show greater nervous system activity, which results in the release of cortisol.
Lonely people experience this heightened activity throughout the day, rather than only during stressful moments. Their brains seem to constantly be on high alert for threats. The result is higher levels of cortisol, which causes more wear and tear on the cardiovascular system.
Will loneliness break your heart?
Most people experience loneliness on occasion. The danger is when it becomes chronic. If you are experiencing loneliness, it can affect your physical health in the areas previously mentioned. It is particularly damaging to your heart.
Studies have shown:
- Loneliness increases blood pressure by the same amount that weight loss and exercise decrease it.
- Both men and women aged 50 to 68 who score highest on measures of loneliness also have higher blood pressure.
- Lonely people have blood pressure as much as 30 points higher than non-lonely people.
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.
The answer, then, is yes, loneliness can break your heart. Loneliness creates and increases the risk of heart disease. It results in increased stress levels, high blood pressure, and overall damage and weakening of your heart.
What can you do to fight loneliness?
It is important to treat loneliness as seriously as we do other threats to our health, such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking. Seek ways to make changes and reduce the associated risks.
This is especially important because loneliness is often associated with additional problems. If you are middle-aged or older, loneliness is often accompanied by alcoholism, depression, and suicide.
What steps can you take to avoid the downward spiral of loneliness?
Develop social ties – This is difficult for those suffering from loneliness, but is key for good health. Studies have shown that a strong network of friends and family reduces the risk of heart disease. Researchers believe this is because those who are isolated are more likely to drink, smoke, and exercise less. They also lack the support of assistance with medications, healthy meal preparation, chores, and encouragement to exercise. Without these supports, the lonely simply become more lonely, and slip into more unhealthy habits that lead to heart risk.
Don’t isolate yourself – Maybe you have a lot of family and friends close by. They are doing all the supportive things we just covered. Maybe they even contact you often, but, you don’t respond. You find it easier to simply not return phone calls and avoid get-togethers. Stop it! Even if it’s hard, get out there. (Facebook doesn’t count.) Keeping yourself isolated will only worsen your loneliness, and lead to related health problems.
Stay busy – One way to “get out there” is to join a group of some kind. A book club, a sports team, a gardening group, a writer’s group – whatever interests you – there’s most likely a group nearby. This will keep your mind on things other than loneliness, and assist you in establishing the healthy social ties that will help with your loneliness. If you are over 50, check out the National Center for Creative Aging for a list of programs nationwide. Just getting out of the house can make a difference.
Embrace a project to help others – Volunteer opportunities, especially for older adults, abound. Helping others can be one of the very best ways to move beyond loneliness. Help a struggling school kid learn to read, volunteer as a woman’s shelter or participate in Meal on Wheels.
Connect with yourself – Often, loneliness is wrapped up with negative views of oneself. It may take a change in thinking patterns about yourself to get off the loneliness road. Retrain yourself to stop negative patterns of thinking, and learn to love yourself. This, in turn, will help you reach out to and love others.
Adopt a pet – Animals have been shown to decrease loneliness and increase happiness in their owners. A faithful loving dog or cat can offer great companionship that feels lacking in the lonely person’s life. The responsibility of taking care of a pet can also stimulate positive habits and feelings. It’s also fun.
Monitor your heart health – Because loneliness is linked to high blood pressure and risk for heart disease, it is good to monitor this area of your health. High blood pressure is a silent killer, so tracking your BP is a good idea for anyone over 40. If you are battling loneliness as well as age, it is even more important.
It’s also easy to do. A home blood pressure measurement device will allow you to track your changes in blood pressure. As you adjust your lifestyle habits, you will be able to see the change in BP numbers.
With an easy to use app, such as Hello Heart (iOS, Android), you will be able to efficiently track your results. It will be easy to see changes over time, or patterns for each day and week. This will help you see how your habits are affecting your health. It will also allow you to easily share your results with your doctor.
Hope for the lonely
By taking these steps, you can greatly decrease the risks raised by loneliness. You can protect your body and mind from the effects of this far-reaching condition. Loneliness does not have to win. You can make changes and monitor your health to be victorious in the battle with loneliness. Take one step today. Loneliness does not have to break your heart.