Effects of Chronic and State Loneliness on Heart Rate Variability in Women

Charlotte M Roddick, Frances S Chen
Annals of Behavioral Medicine: a Publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine 2020 September 5

BACKGROUND: Loneliness, the subjective experience of social isolation, represents one of the largest risk factors for physical illness and early death in humans. However, the mechanisms by which loneliness leads to adverse health outcomes are not well understood.

PURPOSE: In this study, we examined altered parasympathetic nervous system function as a potential pathway by which chronic loneliness and state loneliness may "get under the skin" to impact cardiovascular physiology.

METHODS: In a controlled laboratory setting, vagally mediated resting heart rate variability (HRV), HRV reactivity to an induction of state loneliness, and HRV reactivity to a cognitive challenge task were assessed in a sample of 316 healthy women (18-28 years).

RESULTS: Greater chronic loneliness in women predicted lower resting HRV, an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality, after controlling for demographic, psychosocial, and health behavior covariates. Furthermore, women higher in chronic loneliness experienced significantly larger increases in HRV to state loneliness and reported significantly higher levels of negative affect immediately following state loneliness, compared with their less chronically lonely counterparts. Chronic loneliness also predicted blunted HRV reactivity-a maladaptive physiological response-to cognitive challenge.

CONCLUSIONS: The current findings provide evidence that chronic loneliness is associated with altered parasympathetic function (both resting HRV and HRV reactivity) in women, and that the immediate experience of state loneliness is linked to a proximate increase in HRV among chronically lonely women. Results are discussed in terms of implications for cardiovascular health and the evolutionary functions of loneliness.

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