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Loneliness drops in middle adulthood, but then grows with age

Loneliness is not just a fleeting feeling but a persistent state that can profoundly affect our health and well-being. A comprehensive study conducted by Northwestern Medicine has revealed that loneliness in adulthood exhibits a U-shaped trajectory, peaking during young and older ages while dipping in middle adulthood.

“Loneliness is a pervasive experience with adverse impacts on health and well-being. Despite its significance, notable gaps impede a full understanding of how loneliness changes across the adult life span and what factors influence these changes,” wrote the study authors.

The U-shaped loneliness pattern described by the researchers has been consistently observed across nine longitudinal studies spanning multiple countries, including the U.K., Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia, Israel, and others.

These studies were conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which only exacerbated the feelings of loneliness worldwide.

Key risk factors

The study highlights several factors that contribute to increased loneliness throughout one’s life. Women, individuals who are socially isolated, those with lower educational levels, and people suffering from physical impairments are found to be at greater risk.

Socioeconomic factors such as lower income, being divorced or widowed, and having poor mental or physical health also play significant roles in contributing to this persistent state.

Study co-author Professor Eileen Graham emphasized the critical nature of this issue. “The uptick in loneliness in older adulthood is striking. Considering the detrimental health implications of loneliness, similar to those of daily smoking, it’s crucial to understand who is most affected and why, as they age out of midlife,” said Professor Graham.

A growing epidemic

The study’s revelations are timely, especially in light of last year’s declaration by the U.S. Surgeon General, which labeled loneliness as an epidemic requiring urgent intervention.

Professor Graham suggests that insights from the study could pave the way for targeted interventions to reduce social disparities and, by extension, loneliness – particularly among older adults.

One practical approach could involve general practitioners assessing loneliness levels during regular wellness visits, which might help identify at-risk individuals early on. This proactive measure could potentially help mitigate the long-term impacts of loneliness on health.

Loneliness at different stages of adulthood

The relationship between social interaction and loneliness is complex. During middle adulthood, people often engage in numerous social activities – whether through work, marriage, or parental interactions – that might provide a buffer against loneliness.

However, this is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. “You can have a lot of social interaction and still be lonely or, alternatively, be relatively isolated and not feel lonely,” noted Professor Graham.

For younger adults, loneliness can be particularly challenging as they navigate significant life transitions such as advancing their education, starting careers, and forming new social circles.

“As people grow and transition from young adulthood into midlife, they establish more permanent relationships and social networks, which can be protective against loneliness,” noted Professor Tomiko Yoneda of UC Davis.

Addressing loneliness across the lifespan

The findings of this study not only deepen our understanding of how loneliness evolves throughout life but also underscore the need for tailored strategies to combat this growing issue across different stages of life.

Addressing loneliness is not just about increasing social interactions but also about enhancing the quality of these interactions to foster genuine connections and well-being.

Health impacts of loneliness 

When people feel lonely, they’re more susceptible to a range of mental and physical health issues. For example, loneliness can contribute to increased stress levels, which can in turn affect the cardiovascular system and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. It’s also linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety, which can have a cascading effect on overall well-being.

Physiologically, loneliness can influence sleep patterns, leading to poorer quality sleep and shorter sleep duration. This can exacerbate health problems and decrease immune function, making individuals more vulnerable to various illnesses. 

Additionally, chronic loneliness might contribute to an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, due to the potential impact on brain health and cognitive function.

From a behavioral standpoint, lonely individuals might engage in less physical activity and could have different eating habits, potentially leading to obesity or other related health issues. They might also be less likely to seek medical help or adhere to medical advice, further compounding the risk of negative health outcomes.

The full study was published in the journal Psychological Science.


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