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At What Age Do People Feel Most Lonely?

New research overturns myths and points to concerns.

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Many of us associate loneliness with old age, assuming that the older we get the more likely we are to be lonely. However, a new study used a nationally representative sample of over 16,000 people to examine loneliness throughout the human lifespan and found many of our assumptions are wrong.

Loneliness is defined by the discrepancy between our desired and actual social bonds. Therefore, whether a person is lonely is entirely subjective.

What makes loneliness such a critical issue is that it is associated with significant threats to our mental health, our physical health, and even our life expectancy. (See 10 Surprising Facts about Loneliness.) Studying loneliness over the lifespan sheds light on the dangers of loneliness among groups who tend to minimize both its prevalence and its impact. Indeed, previous studies have found that because we tend to associate loneliness with old age, young and middle-aged adults often underreport feelings of loneliness when directly asked about it in research studies.

In the new study, the researchers endeavored to get a more valid and accurate assessment by avoiding words such as lonely and loneliness. Instead, participants were asked how often they missed the company of other people or how often they felt left out.

The results of the study were both surprising and fascinating. Loneliness did not increase over the lifespan in linear fashion. Rather, loneliness peaked during a different period entirely—young adulthood!

Adults under 30 reported significantly higher levels of loneliness than almost any other age group. Loneliness declined throughout middle age and even into early old age; it approached the levels reported by young adults only among the oldest cohort—people over the age of 80.

Overturning another loneliness myth, the study found that loneliness in people over 80 was primarily due to factors such as the absence of a spouse or partner and the individual's functional limitations. Old age in itself, the researchers concluded, is not a risk factor for loneliness.

To learn more about loneliness, check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

Copyright 2016 Guy Winch

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