Study: Loneliness Increases With Age

Amid a major uptick in loneliness around the world, a new study has found that younger and older adults experience the highest rates of loneliness.

Throughout life, loneliness tends to follow a U-shaped curve, new research has found — reaching its highest peaks in young adulthood and older adulthood while decreasing in middle age.

These are the findings from a new analysis of nine longitudinal studies on loneliness, published Tuesday in Psychological Science. Conducted by researchers from Northwestern Medicine, the study aimed to determine how loneliness changes across the lifespan in order to identify who is most at risk.

“What was striking was how consistent the uptick in loneliness is in older adulthood,” said corresponding author Eileen Graham, associate professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in a news release. “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.”

The researchers analyzed data from 128,118 participants between the ages of 13 to 103 from over 20 countries. They examined loneliness trajectories and predictors and found that younger adults tend to struggle with loneliness, and that loneliness typically decreases as they enter midlife before significantly increasing in older adulthood.

The new research includes analyses of studies from the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia, Israel, the United States, and more, underscoring just how pervasive the issue of loneliness is worldwide.

The study found that certain factors aside from age increase an individual’s risk of suffering from loneliness. Those found to experience higher levels of persistent loneliness were disproportionately women, more isolated, less educated, had lower income, had more functional limitations, were divorced or widowed, were smokers, or had poorer cognitive, physical, or mental health.

In May 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory to raise alarm about the devastating impact of the country's epidemic of loneliness and isolation.

“Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said.

According to the advisory, physical health consequences of poor or insufficient social connection include a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults, while lacking social connection increases the risk of premature death by more than 60%. Loneliness and isolation also contribute substantially to mental health challenges, the advisory said.

These health consequences are precisely why the Northwestern researchers set out to pinpoint those who might be vulnerable, and they say general practitioners could also be assessing levels of loneliness during regular check-ups to help identify those who might be most at risk.

The study authors suspect that younger adults may be lonely due to the transitional nature of this period of life. In contrast, middle age is often filled with social interactions through work, marriage, and children. In older adulthood, the opportunities for these social interactions may dwindle, so they say finding ways of engaging in meaningful connections is particularly important as people age.

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