Feeling loneliness may magnify stroke risk, new study warns
NEW YORK: (Web Desk) Being alone means not having many people around, while being lonely is a feeling of isolation you can have regardless of the people around you. And this feeling may impact your stroke risk, according to a new study.

 In fact, older adults who reported being chronically lonely had a 56% higher risk of stroke than those who were consistently rated low on the loneliness scale, according to a new study, as reported by CNN.

“It is important to routinely assess loneliness, as the consequences may be worse if unidentified and/or ignored,” said lead study author Dr. Yenee Soh, research associate in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in an email.

The study, which published Monday in the journal eClinicalMedicine, looked at data collected between 2006 to 2018 as part of the Health and Retirement Study. More than 12,000 participants age 50 years or older were initially surveyed between 2006 and 2008, according to the study.

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When researchers followed up four years later, nearly 9,000 participants remained in the study. They responded to questions on the Revised UCLA Loneliness Scale and were given loneliness scores for both points in time.

Researchers also tracked the participants’ instances of stroke and analyzed the data against their loneliness scores, according to the study.

While there was a strong increase in risk for people who scored high on loneliness at both points of the survey, there was not a clear association with stroke risk in those who only scored high at one point in time, Soh said. This suggests that the biggest impact on stroke risk occurs over the long term.

“We have known for a while that loneliness is a risk factor for many conditions,” said Dr. Matt Pantell, associate professor in the department of pediatrics and core faculty member of the Center for Health and Community at the University of California, San Francisco. He was not involved in the research.

Prior research has linked loneliness and isolation to sleep problems, inflammation and other symptoms in young adults, and linked them to a shorter life span, insomnia, depression and other symptoms in older adults. Loneliness and social isolation may be connected to higher risks of heart disease, dementia, diabetes, addiction, self-harm and suicidality in people of all ages.

“This (new study) has implications for clinicians and health systems in that understanding whether or not a person is lonely, and for how long, may be able to help identify those at higher risk of stroke,” Pantell added.

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People who scored high on the loneliness scale both times they were surveyed had a much higher risk of stroke, the study said.

Are you lonely or alone?

Being on your own often doesn’t mean you will always feel lonely. Being alone means not having many people around, while being lonely is a feeling of isolation you can have regardless of the people around you.

And that feeling of loneliness is what the study found to be correlated to the increased risk of stroke, Soh said.

“Given that loneliness is a highly subjective experience, seeking help to address and intervene to one’s specific personal needs is important,” she said.

Health care providers can play a part by screening for loneliness and referring patients to therapists and behavioral health clinicians, Soh added.

Silhouette of retired man looking through window with transparent curtain standing at home rear view. Loneliness and old human care concept.

“Individuals may be unaware or reluctant to admit feeling lonely,” she said. “It may be helpful to take self-administered questionnaires that assess loneliness by oneself or when in a healthcare setting to first identify and acknowledge that one is feeling lonely.”

It is important to note that this study is observational, meaning that it can’t say that the feeling of loneliness was the direct cause of the strokes, just that they were correlated, Pantell said. People who feel lonely may share demographic factors or health characteristics that also make them more likely to have a stroke, he said.

However, the researchers conducted a strong study and did control for other explanations, Pantell added.

Feeling more connected

What makes someone feel lonely is often unique to them, meaning that the changes they need to feel more socially integrated will be individual as well, Soh said.

Loneliness impacts people of all ages in the United States, a country in an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation,” said US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in 2023.

“Make it be known that you are experiencing feelings of loneliness, and also identify what would be helpful for you specifically to address the feelings of loneliness,” Soh said.

A wide range of organizations provide resources to help combat loneliness, so it may help to get involved in those in your community, Soh added.

Scrolling through social media may feel like involving oneself in community, but it may take a bit more interaction to combat loneliness, said Dr. Olivia Remes, a mental health researcher at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, in a previous CNN story. Remes was not involved in the latest research.

Interact with friends’ posts or send a private message, she said. Better yet, make interacting in-person with those in your community a part of your daily routine.

“Taking the steps to practice chatting with those you encounter as you go about your day can pay off. It can make you feel better, boost your mood, and even stave off loneliness,” she said.

If you find yourself having a hard time putting yourself out there to make the connections you need, or getting caught in patterns of thinking that you won’t be received well, it might be time to seek the help of a mental health professional, said Dr. Louise Hawkley, a principal research scientist in the Academic Research Centers, NORC, at the University of Chicago in a previous CNN story.

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