Loneliness, while often expected to take a toll on mental health, doesn't stop there - it can also have detrimental effects on physical well-being. Chronic isolation raises the risk of stroke in older adults, a study revealed.

The U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community highlights that loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling — it harms both individual and societal health. Studies have shown that loneliness raises the risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death.

The research team from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health discovered that elderly adults who experienced chronic loneliness had a 56% higher risk of stroke compared to those who consistently reported not being lonely. However, experiencing situational loneliness did not raise the risk of stroke, according to the study published in the journal eClinicalMedicine.

"Loneliness is increasingly considered a major public health issue. Our findings further highlight why that is. Especially when experienced chronically, our study suggests loneliness may play an important role in stroke incidence, which is already one of the leading causes of long-term disability and mortality worldwide," lead author Yenee Soh, research associate in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, said in a news release.

To examine the link between changes in loneliness and the risk of stroke over time, the research team used data from 2006-2018 from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS). Between 2006-2008, a total of 12,161 participants aged 50 and above, who never had a stroke, answered questions on the Revised UCLA Loneliness Scale. Four years later, in 2010-2012, 8,936 of these participants responded to the same questions again.

Based on their loneliness scores at both time points, participants were divided into four groups: "consistently low" (low scores at both times), "remitting" (high scores initially, low later), "recent onset" (low scores initially, high later), and "consistently high" (high scores at both times).

During the follow-up period from 2006 to 2018, there were 1,237 strokes among participants whose loneliness was measured only at baseline. For participants who provided two loneliness assessments over time (from 2010 to 2018), there were 601 strokes during the same follow-up period.

"Among the participants who reported loneliness at two time points, those in the "consistently high" group had a 56% higher risk of stroke than those in the "consistently low" group, even after accounting for a broad range of other known risk factors," the news release stated.

The researchers also noted that individuals who experienced loneliness at one point also faced a greater risk of stroke. However, those with remitting or recent onset loneliness did not show a consistent pattern of increased stroke risk, indicating that loneliness may impact stroke risk over a longer duration. This means that a repeat assessment of loneliness is required to identify those with chronic loneliness and the related stroke risk.

"If we fail to address their feelings of loneliness, on a micro and macro scale, there could be profound health consequences. Importantly, these interventions must specifically target loneliness, which is a subjective perception and should not be conflated with social isolation," said Soh.