The proverbial lonely hearts club may be more literal than we once thought.
A new study from Cornell University, published in Psychology and Aging, found that loneliness actually ages the heart, increasing cardiovascular damage and heart disease risk.
The researchers looked at two groups with 91 adults in each—the first between the ages of 18-30 and the other ages 65-80. To compare the two groups, they measured how participants’ cardiovascular systems reacted and recovered under stress when presenting a speech or doing mental math. Participants also reported how lonely they typically feel.
“The most striking thing we found was that the cardiovascular response of the lonely young adults to the social stressor task looked more like that of the nonlonely older adults,” lead author Anthony Ong, Ph.D., said in a statement. In other words, loneliness aged their hearts prematurely.
The effect of loneliness was even worse for older adults, putting them at the greatest risk for heart-related problems. In fact, on average, their post-stress recovery was so slow that they never returned to baseline during the two-hour follow-up period.
As we age, our blood pressure naturally rises, and our hearts may react more intensely to stress while taking more time to recover. Speeding up that process—which chronic loneliness can do—strains the heart and leads to long-term damage.
But the damage isn’t just internal; it shows up on your skin as well.
“Your arterial health is one of the main factors that affects the way your skin looks,” says YouBeauty co-founder Michael Roizen, M.D. “Your skin is an organ, so you need healthy arteries to deliver all the nutrients it needs.”
"An important takeaway from our work is the reminder that we all desire and need meaningful social connections," Ong told YouBeauty. "When it comes to loneliness, we may not need 100 Facebook friends so much as one friend—one genuine connection."
If you often feel lonely, then building community can be a huge boon for your wellbeing—both mentally and physically. Join a church; get a dog; take a dance class; start a book club; ask your coworkers out for drinks; or reach out to an old friend.
Having somebody to lean on will keep you young at heart.
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