Study: Middle-Aged Americans Are Lonelier Than Europeans

Middle-aged Americans report being much lonelier than European individuals of the same age, according to a new study.

Increasing loneliness is a growing public health concern all over the world — but it’s particularly problematic in the United States, new research has found.

The new study, published in American Psychologist, aimed to discover how loneliness has evolved over time and how it differs between countries.

To do this, researchers analyzed data from ongoing, nationally representative longitudinal surveys from the U.S. and 13 European countries. Their research includes data from more than 53,000 participants from three different generations (the Silent Generation, baby boomers, and Generation X), with all responses given between 2002 and 2020 — when participants were between the ages of 45 and 65.

Participants were asked how often they lack companionship, feel left out, and feel isolated from others.

Middle-age adult respondents in the U.S. reported being much lonelier than respondents in European countries, with rates of loneliness increasing among participants who were born later.

The researchers said they focused on middle-aged adults because they make up the main portion of the workforce and carry the most responsibility by supporting both younger and older generations.

“Loneliness is gaining attention globally as a public health issue because elevated loneliness increases one’s risk for depression, compromised immunity, chronic illness, and mortality,” said lead author Frank Infurna, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University, in a news release.

In addition to adults in the U.S., the study found that middle-aged adults in England and Mediterranean Europe also reported higher levels of loneliness today than earlier-born cohorts, whereas no historical changes (if not historically lower levels) were observed in Continental and Nordic Europe.

The authors offered some potential explanations for the high loneliness levels in the U.S., including cultural factors, social and economic inequalities, and differences in social safety nets.

They suggest that in the U.S., heightened political polarization, an emphasis on individualism, and increased social media use could all be contributing to reductions in social connections and support structures, which can lead to loneliness.

Relative to the other nations, the U.S. also has higher rates of residential mobility, which is associated with weak social and community ties, the researchers wrote. And changing family and friend relationships could lead to fewer family members to share family stresses and burdens with as an increasing number of middle-aged adults take on caregiving responsibilities for aging parents. All of these factors could contribute to cross-national differences in loneliness, they said.

While rising rates of loneliness have been labeled an epidemic in recent years, including in a U.S. surgeon general advisory report, the authors suggest that loneliness is instead endemic, meaning it is regularly occurring within certain communities.

The authors said they hope their research can help people better understand how loneliness is changing across generations and nations and provide momentum for future mechanism-oriented research to identify reasons why certain nations or regions exhibit elevated levels of midlife loneliness. They also hope it will help inform policy efforts to offer solutions to this public health problem.


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