Loneliness can increase the risk of stroke by up to 56%, according to research | Stroke

Loneliness can increase the risk of stroke by up to 56%, according to research that experts say explains why the problem represents a major health threat worldwide.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that loneliness is one of the most important global health problems, affecting all facets of health, well-being and development. The US surgeon general has warned that its effects on mortality are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

While previous research has linked loneliness to an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, little has specifically examined the impact on stroke risk. The study, led by Harvard University, is the first of its kind to examine the association between changes in loneliness and stroke risk over time.

Researchers found that adults ages 50 and older who experienced chronic loneliness had a 56% higher risk of stroke than those who consistently reported not feeling lonely.

Those who experienced situational loneliness but did not suffer from it long-term were not at increased risk of stroke, the study found, suggesting that the impact of loneliness on stroke occurs over many years.

Lead author Dr. Yenee Soh, a research associate at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, said: “Loneliness is increasingly considered a major public health problem. Our findings further highlight why this is so.

“Especially when experienced chronically, our study suggests that loneliness may play an important role in the incidence of stroke, which is already a leading cause of long-term disability and mortality worldwide.”

The findings were published in eClinicalMedicine.

The study used data from 2006 to 2018 from the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study. Between 2006 and 2008, more than 12,000 people aged 50 and older who had never had a stroke were asked about loneliness.

Four years later, about 9,000 people who remained in the study answered the same questions, and the researchers then grouped them based on their answers at the two time points.

The groups were “consistently low” (those who scored low on the loneliness scale at both points); “remitters” (those who scored high at baseline and low at follow-up); “recent onset” (those who scored low at baseline and high at follow-up); and “consistently high” (those who scored high at both baseline and follow-up).

After controlling for factors such as social isolation and depressive symptoms, which are closely related to loneliness but distinct, the researchers found that people considered lonely at the start of the study had a 25% higher risk of having a stroke than those who were considered lonely at the start of the study. They did not consider themselves alone.

But among those who scored “consistently high” on loneliness at both time points, there was a 56% higher risk of having a stroke than those in the “consistently low” group.

“Repeated loneliness assessments can help identify those who feel chronically lonely and are therefore at increased risk of stroke,” Soh said.

People should be offered help based on their loneliness – which relates to how people feel even if they are surrounded by others – and not social isolation, which is different, Soh added.

“If we don’t address their feelings of loneliness, on a micro and macro scale, there could be profound health consequences.”

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