At what age does loneliness strike adults the hardest?

A new review maps it out, finding that people are more lonely as young adults, grow less lonely as they approach middle age, and then fall back into loneliness in old age, researchers reported April 30 in the journal Psychological Science.

“What was striking was how consistent the uptick in loneliness is in older adulthood,” said researcher Eileen Graham, an associate professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

“There’s a wealth of evidence that loneliness is related to poorer health, so we wanted to better understand who is lonely and why people are becoming lonelier as they age out of midlife, so we can hopefully start finding ways to mitigate it,” Graham said.

Social isolation can increase the risk of premature death to levels comparable to daily smoking, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.

For the review, researchers evaluated data from nine long-term studies conducted around the world.

All of the studies showed a U-shaped loneliness curve, even though they tested different groups of people from the United States, the U.K., Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia and Israel, researchers said.  

“Our study is unique because it harnessed the power of all these datasets to answer the same question — ‘How does loneliness change across the lifespan, and what factors contribute to becoming more or less lonely over time?’” Graham said.

All of the studies were conducted prior to the pandemic, which has made loneliness even more pronounced, researchers said.

Graham said the dip in loneliness during middle-age might be because people that age have many demands that require more social interaction — like being married, having kids and going to work.

However, social interaction on its own isn’t a marker for less loneliness, Graham noted.

“You can have a lot of social interaction and still be lonely or, alternatively, be relatively isolated and not feel lonely,” Graham said in a Northwestern news release.

The studies’ data start right at the end of adolescence, when young adults are navigating a number of important life transitions, said researcher Tomiko Yoneda, an assistant professor of psychology at University of California, Davis.

These include finishing their education, embarking upon their careers and ever-evolving changes to their relationships with family, friends and romantic partners.

“As people age and develop through young adulthood into midlife, they start to set down roots and become established, solidifying adult friend groups, social networks and life partners,” Yoneda said. “We do have evidence that married people tend to be less lonely, so for older adults who are not married, finding ongoing points of meaningful social contact will likely help mitigate the risk of persistent loneliness.”

More information

The U.S. Surgeon General has more about loneliness.

SOURCE: Northwestern University, news release, April 30, 2024

Source: HealthDay

Comments are closed.