Forever alone: a new health hazard?

One may be the loneliest number, but it just might kill you, too.

By James DelVesco

Perhaps as a cautionary tale to the self-proclaimed academic hermits at the U of C, researchers at the University have found that loneliness is bad for your


In a study led by Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience John Cacioppo, a positive correlation was found between people’s level of loneliness and their blood pressure.

The study, which began in 2002, asked respondents aged 50-68 about their social life, then ranked individuals based on their cumulative survey scores on a scale from 20 to 80, with 80 being the

most lonely.

“There are people very happy being alone, and there are people who can be around others and feel very lonely,” said Associate Director of the Social Neuroscience Laboratory Louise Hawkley, who also worked on the study with


“It’s not whether you’re alone, it’s how you feel about the quality of relationships you have with other people,” she said.

The research found that people who were lonely not only exhibited the highest blood pressure at the onset of the study, but also the greatest increase in blood pressure over the next 10 years. Blood pressure levels were on average 14 millimeters higher for those who exhibited higher levels of loneliness.

In addition to higher risk for hypertension, loneliness also affects other aspects of body physiology—namely, sleeping and immune response—the study found.

“Loneliness is a good thing,” Hawkley said. “It’s normal for people to want to feel connected to those around them. We’re a social species, we wouldn’t survive without other people, so we need that little trigger, that loneliness feeling, to get us out there and reconnect.”

However, this trigger proves detrimental when feelings of loneliness “stick around.” Consequently, researchers are seeking ways for people to overcome loneliness.

“You have to find the right kind of people. You have to find people with like interests for you to feel like you can really connect,” Hawkley said.