In an effort to develop effective treatment for loneliness, researchers at the UC San Diego School of Medicine investigated the factors that cause feelings of isolation different age groups. Some of the most consistent predictors of loneliness were found to be a lack of compassion and empathy, as well as less social activity.
Loneliness is a widespread public health issue that can have a serious impact on health and well-being. To get a sense of how to prevent or treat loneliness, the team surveyed more than 2,800 people between the ages of 20 and 69.
An analysis of the data revealed that levels of loneliness were highest in the 20s, peaked again during the mid-40s, and were lowest in the 60s.
“What we found was a range of predictors of loneliness across the lifespan,” said study senior author Dr. Dilip V. Jeste.
The research revealed that lower levels of empathy and compassion, smaller social networks, not having a spouse or a partner, and greater sleep disturbances were the most reliable predictors of loneliness across all decades.
A lack of confidence to deal with various aspects of one’s life, or self-efficacy, and higher anxiety were associated with worse loneliness in all age decades, except the 60s.
The study confirmed the findings of previous research that there is a strong inverse association between loneliness and wisdom, particularly involving pro-social behaviors.
“Compassion seems to reduce the level of loneliness at all ages, probably by enabling individuals to accurately perceive and interpret others’ emotions along with helpful behavior toward others, and thereby increasing their own social self-efficacy and social networks,” said Dr. Jeste.
The survey responses indicate that people in their 20s are under a lot of stress and pressure while trying to find a life partner and become established in a career.
“A lot of people in this decade are also constantly comparing themselves on social media and are concerned about how many likes and followers they have,” said study first author Dr. Tanya Nguyen. “The lower level of self-efficacy may lead to greater loneliness.”
In their 40s, individuals are beginning to experience physical challenges and health issues, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
“Individuals may start to lose loved ones close to them and their children are growing up and are becoming more independent. This greatly impacts self-purpose and may cause a shift in self-identity, resulting in increased loneliness,” said Dr. Nguyen.
According to Dr. Jeste, the findings are especially relevant during the COVID-19 global pandemic. “We want to understand what strategies may be effective in reducing loneliness during this challenging time. Loneliness is worsened by the physical distancing that is necessary to stop the spread of the pandemic.”
Dr. Nguyen concluded that intervention and prevention efforts should consider stage-of-life issues. “There is a need for a personalized and nuanced prioritizing of prevention targets in different groups of people,” said Jeste.
The study is published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.