Loneliness Across the Lifespan

New research highlights how loneliness changes at different life stages

Posted Jun 08, 2016

But the battles against loneliness that I fought when I was 16 are very different from those I fought when I was 27, and those are very different from the ones I fight at 44.   Tom Hanks

Loneliness can happen at any age.   Whether you are an adolescent, young adult, or entering the twilight years, feelings of loneliness have a way of striking when you least expect.  Whether or not you are surrounded by other people, you can still feel alone. 

Even defining loneliness can be hard since it often occurs at different times and for different reasons  One of the most common definitions of loneliness used by researchers is a "perceived discrepancy between desired and actual social relationships."   In other words, we feel lonely when we see a difference between the significant relationships we have and the ones we think we should have. 

Surveys suggest that loneliness levels can peak in young adulthood (around 30 years of age) while slowly diminishing throughout middle and early old age (65 to 80 years).   It isn't until people reach the age of 80 or over that reported levels of perceived loneliness pass levels seen in young adulthood. Throughout the course of our lifespan, we often see significant shifts in the number and quality of our major relationships as our social networks grow and shrink over time.  And our definition of loneliness tends to change over time as well.

As adolescents or young adults, we often worry over the number of friends we have and whether or not this is "normal" for someone our own age.  Teenagers may feel lonely if they only have one or two friends though someone in their seventies or eighties might feel perfectly satisfied with the same number of friends. 

How we define friendship can also change dramatically over time. During adolescence or young adulthood, we may consider anyone we can call up to socialize with to be a friend.  For older adults however, friendship is often judged by the number of life crises shared together over the years.

While research suggests that women are more prone to feeling lonely than men, this is often due to how loneliness is measured.  Men are typicallyless likely to admit feeling lonely than women due to concerns over how they might be judged by others.    Socioeconomic factors also seem to play an important role in loneliness.  According to a recent survey in the Netherlands, the risk of severe loneliness is three times higher for those in the lowest income category than in the highest.  

Level of education and employment status seem to be important as well with more well-educated and employed adults tending to report feeling less lonely compared to less educated or unemployed adults. Of course, people who work long hours also have fewer opportunities for socializing due to having less leisure time   But being employed also means having a social network in place as well as a sense of purpose which can help offset feeling lonely for many people.   

Other important factors, including marital status, physical health, nature and quality of social relationships, and presence of children in the household all contribute to whether or not people feel lonely at different stages in life. They also demonstrate that loneliness can be extremely difficult to avoid, especially with the inevitable changes that occur as we grow older.

A new article published in the journal Developmental Psychology describes one of the most comprehensive studies ever undertaken on loneliness across the lifespan.  Maike Luhmann of the University of Cologne and Louise C. Hawkley at NORC of the University of Chicago examined age differences in thousands of German adults taking part in a large-scale survey studying changes in German households over the past three decades.   Since 1984, the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) project has been interviewing thousands of German each year and, beginning in 2013, has also started collecting information on loneliness trends. 

During the 2013 wave alone, researchers collected data on 16,132 adults (53 percent female) ranging in age from 18 to 103. Along with items from the UCLA Loneliness Scale,  participants were asked about family situation, level of education, marital status, employment, and social relationships.  By studying the collected data on loneliness, Luhmann and Hawkley hoped to answer three main questions: 

  1. How is loneliness distributed across the life span?; 
  2. How can age differences in loneliness be explained by social and demographic factors,  relationship status,  and frequency of social contact?;  and
  3. How important are these factors at different stages in life?

According to the study results, reported loneliness was highest among participants over the age of eighty.  But loneliness also showed an interesting pattern of change over time with two main peaks around the age of thirty and the age of sixty (traditional "milestone" ages) and two main dips around the age of forty and the age of seventy-five. When other factors such as number of friends and frequency of social contact are taken into account however, age differences in loneliness tend to disappear. 

Most of the older adults reporting significant loneliness also report not having a spouse or partner as well as other problems such as low income or health problems that interfered with their ability to socialize.  Since health problems often worsens as people grow older, having a spouse or partner becomes increasingly important in preventing loneliness in extreme old age.  On the other hand, not having a partner is less important for younger adults and doesn't seem to make a significant difference in whether or not they feel lonely.  

The researchers also found that employment status and household size, i.e., number of children in the household, didn't necessarily protect against loneliness  for younger or middle-aged adults. As expected, social factors such as number of friends and quality of relationships played a more direct role in whether or not people feel lonely.  

Education was another factor that seems to be linked loneliness in surprising ways.  While level of education was generally associated with reduced loneliness, this seems to be mainly due to the correlation between education and income. When income was taken into account, reported loneliness actually increased with for people with higher levels of education.  Whether this was due to educated people having higher standards for social relationships or because they actually have fewer strong relationships is an open question at this point.

Overall, the results of this study help demonstrate that the likelihood of feeling lonely  can vary widely across the lifespan.  For younger adults, loneliness tends to peak around the age of thirty and decreases slowly until it starts rising again when people are in their sixties or seventies. This basically means that loneliness can occur at any age though the reasons are often very different depending on the particular stage in life. It also means that the methods we use to deal with loneliness as adolescents or young adults aren't necessarily going to work as well when we are middle-aged or older.  

While more research is needed to study how loneliness evolves over time, we need to recognize that how we interact with friends and family is going to change as we grow older.   We also need to learn different age-appropriate strategies to handle these inevitable lonely feelings whenever they occur.  Not losing hope and making that extra effort to reach out to others is always going to be an important first step, no matter how old you may be.   

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