Study focuses on link to inflammation and cardiovascular disease
According to new research from the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing (JHSON), loneliness is more than an unwelcome feeling; it is associated with systemic inflammation in middle-age adults and may be an early warning sign of impending poor health outcomes including cardiovascular disease.
The report, published in Social Science and Medicine, was conducted by faculty members Paula Nersesian, PhD, MPH, RN, Hae-Ra Han, PhD, RN, FAAN, Marie Nolan, PhD, MPH, RN, FAAN, and Sarah Szanton, PhD, ANP, FAAN and colleagues from the Johns Hopkins schools of Medicine and Public Health.
The study looked at the association between loneliness and three biomarkers of inflammation—interleukin-6, fibrinogen, and C-reactive protein—using information from the Midlife in the US (MIDUS) Biomarker Project. The project collected data between 1995-1996 and 2004-2009 on psychological, social, and physiological measures through telephone interviews, self-administered questionnaires, and a two-day clinical examination. Loneliness was measured by asking participants the degree to which they felt lonely during the past week. Biomarkers of systemic inflammation were measured using a blood sample.
Overall, the study found that 29 percent of the sample, ages 35-64, reported feeling lonely most or some of the time, and there was a positive significant relationship between reporting feeling lonely and each of the three systemic inflammation biomarkers, even after controlling for factors that could have impacted loneliness or inflammation. Those factors included social integration, social support, positive relationships with others, age, history of smoking, regular exercise, and body mass index (BMI).
Nersesian, lead author of the study, says this isn’t the first study examining loneliness in relation to inflammation. However, this study adds to a limited body of research on loneliness among adults in the early years of middle-age, an understudied group.
“Systemic inflammation may be more prevalent among younger middle-aged adults than previously understood,” she writes in the article. “Middle age is a period of life when people face numerous challenges in their social relationships due to shifts in family structure, progression or changes in one’s occupation, and changes in health status.” It’s also a time where risk of developing cardiovascular disease is high.
“This study is crucial to how we think about preventing cardiovascular disease. We demonstrated a relationship between this psychosocial factor—loneliness—and systemic inflammation, and it’s worth taking a deeper look at loneliness as a target for intervention,” says Nersesian. The researchers conclude that reducing loneliness among people in middle age may improve physical and mental health, and quality of life. Existing interventions to mitigate feelings of loneliness are showing success; more work is needed, especially among vulnerable groups.