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Feb 16, 2014 08:42 PM EST

Loneliness May Cause High Blood Pressure, Depression And Premature Death In Older Adults

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Loneliness may increase an older person's chance of premature death, according to a recent study.

Researchers from the University of Chicago found that feeling extreme loneliness could increase premature death in older adults by 14 percent.

A 2010 meta-analysis showed that loneliness has twice the impact on early death than obesity, he said.

For their study, investigators looked at dramatic differences in the rate of decline in physical and mental health as people age. They examined the role of satisfying relationships on older people to develop their resilience, the ability to bounce back after adversity and grow from stresses in life.

They found that the impact loneliness have on health is dramatic, as feeling isolated from others can disrupt sleep, elevate blood pressure, increase morning rises in the stress hormone cortisol, alter gene expression in immune cells, and increase depression and lower overall subjective well-being, according to a press release.

Researchers said the three core dimensions to healthy relationships are intimate connectedness, which comes from having someone in your life you feel affirms who you are; relational connectedness, which comes from having face-to-face contacts that are mutually rewarding; and collective connectedness, which comes from feeling that you're part of a group or collective beyond individual existence.

John Cacioppo, lead author of the study and one of the nation's leading experts on loneliness, said older people can avoid the consequences of loneliness by staying in touch with former co-workers, taking part in family traditions, and sharing good times with family and friends - all of which gives older adults a chance to connect others about whom they care and who care about them.

Cacioppo added that population changes make understanding the role of loneliness and health more important.

"Retiring to Florida to live in a warmer climate among strangers isn't necessarily a good idea if it means you are disconnected from the people who mean the most to you," he said. "We are experiencing a silver tsunami demographically. The baby boomers are reaching retirement age. Each day between 2011 and 2030, an average of 10,000 people will turn 65."

He added that "people have to think about how to protect themselves from depression, low subjective well-being and early mortality."

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