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Chronic loneliness increases stroke risk in older adults

Loneliness, a growing public health concern, has now been linked to a significantly increased risk of stroke among older adults, according to a recent study.

This research underscores the critical need to address social isolation to prevent serious health outcomes, revealing that chronic loneliness plays a crucial role in stroke incidence.

Study lead author Yenee Soh is a research associate in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Loneliness is increasingly considered a major public health issue. Our findings further highlight why that is,” said Soh.

“Especially when experienced chronically, our study suggests loneliness may play an important role in stroke incidence, which is already one of the leading causes of long-term disability and mortality worldwide.”

Focus of the study

The researchers analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), covering the period from 2006 to 2018.

Initially, 12,161 adults aged 50 and above who had never experienced a stroke responded to questions on the Revised UCLA Loneliness Scale.

The responses helped create summary scores. Four years later, 8,936 of the participants responded to the same questions again.

The experts categorized participants into four groups based on their loneliness scores over the two time points: “consistently low,” “remitting,” “recent onset,” and “consistently high.”

Chronic loneliness and stroke risk

Among those who provided loneliness data only at the baseline, 1,237 strokes occurred during the follow-up period (2006-2018). For those who provided two assessments, 601 strokes occurred during the follow-up period (2010-2018).

The researchers controlled for other health and behavioral risk factors, including social isolation and depressive symptoms.

The study found a significant link between loneliness and increased stroke risk. Participants considered lonely at baseline had a 25% higher risk of stroke than those who were not considered lonely.

Those in the “consistently high” loneliness group had a 56% higher risk of stroke than those in the “consistently low” group.

Interestingly, participants who experienced remitting or recent onset loneliness did not show a clear pattern of increased stroke risk, suggesting that the impact of social isolation on stroke risk is more profound over the long term.

Implications of chronic loneliness

“Repeat assessments of loneliness may help identify those who are chronically lonely and are therefore at a higher risk for stroke. If we fail to address their feelings of loneliness, on a micro and macro scale, there could be profound health consequences,” noted Soh.

“Importantly, these interventions must specifically target loneliness, which is a subjective perception and should not be conflated with social isolation.”

The study’s authors call for further research to examine nuanced changes in loneliness over short and long periods. They emphasize the need to understand the potential underlying mechanisms and note that their findings may not be applicable to younger individuals.

More about chronic loneliness

Chronic loneliness is a prolonged and persistent feeling of being alone or disconnected from others, even when surrounded by people.

Unlike temporary loneliness, which everyone experiences occasionally, chronic loneliness is a more enduring state that can have significant negative impacts on both mental and physical health. It often arises from a lack of meaningful social connections and can lead to feelings of isolation, sadness, and a sense of not belonging.

This condition can stem from various factors, including life changes such as moving to a new place, loss of loved ones, social anxiety, or prolonged periods of solitude.

Chronic loneliness is linked to increased risks of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. It can also contribute to physical health problems, such as a weakened immune system, cardiovascular issues, and increased inflammation in the body.

People experiencing chronic loneliness may struggle with forming or maintaining relationships, often feeling misunderstood or disconnected even in social settings. This can create a cycle where loneliness leads to withdrawal from social interactions, which in turn exacerbates the feeling of isolation.

Addressing chronic loneliness typically involves seeking support through therapy, engaging in social activities, building new relationships, and sometimes making lifestyle changes to foster a sense of community and belonging.

The study is published in the journal EClinicalMedicine.


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