Loneliness may increase stroke risk in older adults

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A recent study led by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests that chronic loneliness might significantly increase the risk of stroke among older adults.

Loneliness, often overlooked, is now being recognized as a major health concern.

This study, which will be featured in the June edition of eClinicalMedicine, provides insights into how loneliness over time can affect one’s health, specifically increasing the likelihood of having a stroke, a major cause of disability and death globally.

In this study, researchers focused on understanding how feeling lonely affects the chances of having a stroke. They used data collected from 2006 to 2018 from a survey called the Health and Retirement Study (HRS).

Initially, in 2006-2008, over 12,000 adults aged 50 and above who had never had a stroke answered questions that helped the researchers measure their feelings of loneliness. These questions were part of a well-known questionnaire called the Revised UCLA Loneliness Scale.

Four years later, in 2010-2012, about 9,000 of these participants responded to the same loneliness questions.

From their responses, the researchers categorized them into four groups based on their loneliness scores at both times: those who felt lonely little to none of the time (“consistently low”), those whose feelings of loneliness decreased (“remitting”), those whose feelings of loneliness started recently (“recent onset”), and those who felt lonely most of the time (“consistently high”).

During the study periods, strokes occurred in 1,237 participants who had only the initial loneliness assessment and in 601 participants who were assessed twice. The findings revealed that loneliness was linked to an increased stroke risk.

The risk was especially high in those who felt lonely consistently; they had a 56% higher chance of having a stroke compared to those who rarely felt lonely.

This was true even after considering other factors like social isolation and depression, which can also influence health but are different from feeling lonely.

The study highlights that the risk associated with loneliness seems to build over time. Those who felt lonely at only one time point had a higher risk of stroke, but the link wasn’t as clear in those whose feelings of loneliness changed between the two assessments.

This suggests that the long-term feeling of being lonely is particularly detrimental.

Yenee Soh, the lead researcher, emphasizes the importance of ongoing assessments of loneliness. Identifying people who feel lonely over a long period could help prevent potential health issues like strokes.

Interventions should specifically target the feeling of loneliness, which is a personal experience and different from simply being socially isolated.

The study’s authors also point out that the research is still in its early stages. More studies are needed to understand the specific ways loneliness leads to stroke and whether these findings also apply to younger people.

The research team included other Harvard experts like Ichiro Kawachi, Laura Kubzansky, Lisa Berkman, and Henning Tiemeier, who are continuing to explore these critical connections between mental well-being and physical health.

This research underscores the significance of addressing loneliness as a public health priority, not just for its emotional effects but also for its profound impact on physical health, especially in older adults.

If you care about stroke, please read studies that diets high in flavonoids could help reduce stroke risk, and MIND diet could slow down cognitive decline after stroke.

For more health information, please see recent studies about antioxidants that could help reduce the risk of dementia, and tea and coffee may help lower your risk of stroke, dementia.

The research findings can be found in eClinicalMedicine.

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