Middle-aged men who have experienced multiple breakups or lived alone for many years may be prone to heightened levels of systemic inflammation, according to a new study in The Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. While the overall level of inflammation for solitary men was still classed as low-grade, the researchers insist that this slight yet persistent increase could carry major consequences, raising the chances of disease and death.
Prior research has indicated that men’s health regularly deteriorates following a divorce, yet the authors of this new study wanted to learn more about the impact of several failed relationships as well as the cumulative effect of multiple years spent living on one’s own. To investigate, they assessed levels of two key inflammatory biomarkers – known as interleukin 6 (IL-6) and C-reactive protein (CRP) – in the blood of 4,835 Danish individuals aged between 48 and 62.
Data was drawn from the Copenhagen Aging and Midlife Biobank (CAMB), and information regarding relationship breakups was included for 3,170 men and 1,442 women, while the number of years spent living alone between 1986 and 2011 was indicated for 3,336 men and 1,499 women.
Results revealed a 17 percent increase in both IL-6 and CRP in men who had experienced two or more breakups compared to those who had never lost a partner. Similarly, men who had lived alone for seven or more years had 11 percent higher levels of CRP and 12 percent more IL-6 than those who had spent less than a year on their own.
Interestingly, however, no such effect was seen for women, who appear to suffer no increase in inflammation following the end of a relationship or multiple years without a partner. While this sex-specific finding is difficult to explain, the study authors say that this may reflect the fact that inflammation tends to be higher in young men than in young women, and that this difference may increase with both age and the emotional and physical toll of loneliness and rejection.
They also speculate that men may be more likely than women to react to a breakup by engaging in unhealthy activities like excessive drinking, all of which may contribute to their inflammation levels.
Finally, the researchers note that these results appear to be tied to education levels, and that men with more years of schooling seem to be the most susceptible to heightened inflammation. Among men with multiple breakups, those with higher levels of education exhibited the greatest increase in both IL-6 and CRP. Likewise, IL-6 markers were most pronounced in highly educated men who had spent at least seven years living alone, while the greatest elevation in CRP was seen in men with high levels of education and between two and six years of solitary living.
It's important to note that this study is merely observational, and does not, therefore, indicate any causal link between loneliness and inflammation. Nontheless, the authors conclude that “small numbers of breakups or years lived alone is not in itself a risk of poor health, but the combination of (many) years lived alone and several break-ups is in our study shown to affect both CRP and IL-6 levels significantly.”
“The levels of inflammation in our study are low, but they are also significant, clinically relevant, and most likely a risk factor for increased mortality,” they add.