Historically, experiences of loneliness have improperly been associated with older adults, particularly in the mainstream media, despite more recent evidence that loneliness can be experienced at any age (Barreto, et al., 2021; Luhmann, & Hawkley, 2016). Experiences of loneliness are particularly heightened during periods of transition, such as being a new mother (Lee, Vasileiou, & Barnett, 2019), leaving work including retirement (Coyle & Dugan, 2012), through bereavement (Collins, 2014), or geographical relocation (Fedor, 2003).
Over the past three years, and preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, conversation around both loneliness and social isolation has increased nationally, in part due to cause-specific organisations such as the Jo Cox Commission and the Campaign to End Loneliness having advanced this agenda. Within the UK, this increased recognition of social isolation and loneliness has resulted in the introduction of the first Minister for Loneliness and a governmental report which sets out goals to improve the evidence base, embed loneliness across policy, and build national conversation (Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport, 2018). Since the start of the pandemic, the subject of loneliness has attracted more attention than ever before (Stamos, 2020) and importantly, the focus on loneliness over the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the impact of loneliness at any time of life.
This study, carried out in the USA (Hawley et al, 2020), aimed to describe age differences in the frequency of loneliness across the lifespan. Secondly, this study aimed to examine the relationships between loneliness and other demographic factors (e.g. income, self-reported health status, employment). Finally, this study considers the potential link between loneliness and ageing in two ways; through age-specific differences and age-normative perspectives.
When describing age-specificity the authors draw on literature which describes the impact of differing relationships, work status, or the frequency of social contact dependent on age, and therefore potentially affecting experiences of loneliness. With regards to the age-normative perspective, the authors utilise existing literature which posits the impact of physical and psychological changes related to ageing in which there are societal expectations that may impact experiences of loneliness (e.g. puberty or bereavement).
This study utilised a cross-sectional design using loneliness data from the 2014 and 2018 General Social Survey. Data from a nationally representative sample (N=2,477) was included, with participants ranging from 18-89+ years.
Loneliness was determined using the 3-item UCLA loneliness scale (Hughes, Waite, Hawkley, & Cacioppo, 2004), a pre-validated and commonly used tool in this area of research. The authors also considered multiple demographic variables (predictor variables): sex, ethnicity, annual household income, household size, marital status, self-rated health, religious engagement, and contact frequency.
Prior to analysis, predictive mean matching was applied to the data where there were missing values on self-rated health and contact frequency. Following this, the age distribution of loneliness was visualised with a locally weighted scatterplot to determine the linearity. Interactions between each predictor variable of loneliness and age were analysed with multiple regression models, investigating age-specific effects and age-normative effects.
From the loneliness data and demographic data analysed from the General Social Survey, it was evident that the distribution of loneliness across the lifespan was complex and nonlinear. Levels of loneliness fluctuated across the lifespan, interestingly, being high among young adults (<30 years), middle age (50–60 years), and also very old age (>80 years). ‘Dips’ in loneliness were characterised among adults around ages 40 and 70.
Not only does this study evidence the nonlinear relationship between loneliness and ageing, but it also evidences key factors that did significantly relate to loneliness, namely:
- being unmarried (particularly for those who were widowed),
- having a lower income,
- living alone,
- self-reporting poor health status,
- and having less social connection with friends or family.
Further analysis showed no indication of age-specific effects or age-normative effects, highlighting that these factors do not significantly differ depending on age and are “universal predictors of loneliness” across the lifespan.
The findings of this study support recent academic research in this arena (e.g. Barreto et al., 2021; Luhmann, & Hawkley, 2016), but contradict the prevailing widespread thinking around loneliness, which still places the focus of loneliness on older age. Younger adults, especially those under 25 years, are as lonely as older adults (80+). Demographic factors, other than age, were related to loneliness but were independent of age. The authors conclude that “it is not age itself that influences loneliness but rather that age differences in experiences and resources account for age differences in loneliness”.
Strengths and limitations
This is a strong and robust study which is innovative and uses a nationally representative sample of adults living in the USA. This is the first paper to consider the relationship between loneliness and ageing through multiple lenses; age distribution, age-specific effects, and age-normative effects.
However, there are of course some limitations to this data that must be taken into account:
- Firstly, this study relies upon self-reported data, of which experiences of loneliness may be misrepresented due to social desirability bias (Russell, 1982).
- Secondly, the authors use the 3-item UCLA loneliness scale, a commonly used tool in the field. The inconsistency of loneliness reporting tools is a key limitation to this paper, and more broadly in this field. This makes it difficult to compare findings as each tool characterises and measures loneliness in a different way, using positive or negatively worded questions, direct or indirect questions, or examining different types of loneliness, such as emotional or social loneliness (de Jong Gierveld, 1987; Office for National Statistics, 2018).
- Thirdly, only a single item was used for self-rated health of participants, making it difficult to address such a complex construct. It is unclear as to whether this question referred to physical and/or mental health. Research is conflicting with regards to the use of a single-item health measure.
Implications for practice
This study has the potential to support a shift in the public dialogue around loneliness. Much media representation and images around loneliness are of older adults, particularly frail older adults, but this evidence reinforces the view that consideration should be given to the use of people of all ages. The findings of this study strengthen the position of the relationship between age and loneliness as being non-linear and not necessarily increasing with age, with peaks and dips throughout the lifespan.
Experiences of loneliness must be normalised and de-stigmatised for younger adults and adolescents through national conversations and mainstream media/social media coverage and discussion. Furthermore, normalisation of experiencing loneliness, at any age, may be improved through services for social participation which are targeted at the wider population, as opposed to the ageing population exclusively. The findings of this research may help to shift the focus of this message and support this changing narrative.
The non-linearity of loneliness across the lifespan, and the significant relationship between loneliness and “universal” predictors of loneliness (i.e. household income, household size, marital status, health, and frequency of socialising) has implications for policy and services targeting loneliness. Particularly, interventions to reduce loneliness are often targeted at age-specific groups, however, the focus of these interventions should not be on age, but more so at individuals with lower income, those with a smaller household or single/widowed, those with poor health status, and/or those who socialise less frequently.
Statement of interests
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Hughes, M. E., Waite, L. J., Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2004). A short scale for measuring loneliness in large surveys. Research on Aging, 26, 655–672.
Lee, K., Vasileiou, K., & Barnett, J. (2019). ‘Lonely within the mother’: An exploratory study of first-time mothers’ experiences of loneliness. Journal of Health Psychology, 24(10), 1334–1344. doi.org/10.1177/1359105317723451.
Luhmann, M., & Hawkley, L. C. (2016). Age differences in loneliness from late adolescence to oldest old age. Developmental psychology, 52(6), 943–959.
Office for National Statistics (2018). Measuring loneliness: guidance for use of the national indicators on surveys.
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Stamos A. Lockdown loneliness: who is lonely before and during the pandemic? The Mental Elf, 6 Nov 2020.
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