Persistent loneliness greatly increases stroke risk, study finds

Loneliness is something most of us have experienced at one time or another. Different from simply being on your own, loneliness is a deeper, darker feeling of being isolated from human contact.

Persistent loneliness, where the feeling of isolation is ongoing, has been documented to cause or exacerbate many mental health issues, dementia and even makes premature death from all causes more likely.

It can also have numerous biological effects, including high blood pressure and impaired immune function.

Loneliness can become particularly acute in older age, when children have grown and moved away and frankly, friends start dying.

A recent Monash University study found lonely Aussies aged 65 and over often report feeling ‘abandoned’, ‘rejected’ and ‘left to die’, stats from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey show one in five people aged over 75 regularly feel lonely, with that number increasing to between 35 and 61 per cent for people living in aged care facilities.

Loneliness linked to strokes

Now, a new study published in The Lancet’s eClinical Medicine journal, has found persistent loneliness can increase the risk of stroke among older people by as much as 56 per cent.

The study looked at data from almost 9000 participants aged 50 and over who had never had a stroke. Their levels of loneliness were measured according to their answers to a questionnaire using the Revised UCLA Loneliness Scale.

Crucially, only participants who had two loneliness scores, measured at different times, were included in the study. This was so the researchers could measure the effects of loneliness over time on the body, rather than just loneliness in general.

Participants were then further categorised according to loneliness levels: ‘consistently high’, defined as people who scored high during both assessments; ‘consistently low’, who were people with low levels in both assessments; ‘remitting’, people with a high loneliness score at the first measurement, but not the second and finally, ‘recent onset’ who were people with a low score at the first measurement but who a high score later on.

The results showed those who felt lonely at both measurements were 25 per cent more likely to have a stroke compared to those who didn’t at baseline.

“Chronic loneliness was associated with higher stroke risk independent of depressive symptoms or social isolation,” the study concludes.

“Addressing loneliness may have an important role in stroke prevention, and repeated assessments of loneliness over time may help identify those particularly at risk.”

What’s the connection?

Dr Yeenee Soh, corresponding author of the study, admitted that defining exactly how chronic loneliness causes strokes was beyond the scope of their research.

“Based on the literature, there are three broad pathways that generally describe how loneliness can impact stroke risk: physiological, behavioural, and psychosocial.”

But the effects of loneliness on your cardiovascular system have been well documented, and as strokes are linked to your heart, could that be the link?

Cardiologist Dr Jayne Morgan told Medical News Today said the effects of loneliness on blood pressure certainly play a role in increasing stroke risk, other side-effects of loneliness would also be contributing.

“Self-abusive behaviours such as decreased physical activity, overeating, high consumption of ultra-processed foods, increased alcohol intake, increased use of cigarettes and/or drugs, decreased compliance with prescribed medications, and poor sleep hygiene may all be factors,” she said.

How do we fix or prevent loneliness?

Loneliness is a complex phenomenon, and again is more than simply being socially isolated.  It’s the painful emotional feeling that comes with being alone when you don’t want to be, made worse if there doesn’t seem to be any prospect of that changing.

Many spend the majority of their time alone and are perfectly happy and being surrounded by people is no guarantee you won’t feel lonely.

You may have friends and family to talk to, but if you feel misunderstood, disconnected from the group, or like you are standing on the sidelines, you can feel lonely in a crowded room.

Loneliness is therefore more of a psychological problem than simply a matter of having enough friends. It’s not enough to just have connections – they need to be meaningful connections.

What is meaningful will be different for everyone, and there is no one-size-fits all approach.

The Black Dog Institute says there are still practical steps you can take to reduce feelings of loneliness – even when you’re on your own.

They recommend trying to occupy your mind with satisfying endeavours like creative projects and exercise and of course trying to find more of those meaningful connections through activities like volunteer work.

But if nothing seems to be working, it may be time to consult a GP, who may give you a referral to a mental health professional.

So, if there are people in your life who you think might be at risk of loneliness, remember to check in on them.

Would say you feel lonely often? What do you do to alleviate those feelings? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also read: Five health conditions that can mimic stroke symptoms

Brad Lockyer
Brad Lockyer
Brad has deep knowledge of retirement income, including Age Pension and other government entitlements, as well as health, money and lifestyle issues facing older Australians. Keen interests in current affairs, politics, sport and entertainment. Digital media professional with more than 10 years experience in the industry.
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