Humans are social creatures, and even before the isolation enforced on us by the COVID-19 pandemic researchers were suggesting we’re facing an epidemic of loneliness in increasingly disconnected cultures.
And it seems the factors contributing to feelings of isolation could differ with age, according to a study with more than 26,000 adults from The Netherlands, published in the journal BMC Public Health.
This indicates “there is no one-size-fits-all approach to reduce or prevent loneliness among adults,” says first author Thanée Franssen, from Maastricht University.
“Current interventions are universal but results of this study suggest that interventions should be tailored to a specific life phase.”
People may feel lonely if their situation, whether it be completing school, having a job, being partnered or having children, differs from the norm for their age group, the researchers suggest.
They found that connecting regularly with friends was an important factor in young adults aged 19 to 34, while early and late middle-aged people felt less lonely when they had more frequent contact with family.
Education level was associated with loneliness in younger adults, and employment status was linked to feeling lonely in early middle-aged adults, aged 35 to 49. For adults aged 50 to 65, perceived health factored in.
Despite these differences, some things didn’t vary. Living alone, frequency of contact with neighbours and psychological and emotional wellbeing were linked to loneliness in all age groups. Feeling excluded from society had the strongest connection.
Loneliness is generally described as an unpleasant, subjective feeling associated with inadequate social relationships and has profound impacts on physical and psychological health and wellbeing.
“Due to the detrimental effects of loneliness for the individual as well as society,” Franssen and colleagues write, “loneliness is recognised as a major public health concern.”
Other research has linked it to being single, low education level, unemployment and financial problems, as well as an inadequate social networks, poor social support and living alone. Health factors can also contribute.
But studies have predominantly focussed on young and elderly adults and people with health problems, failing to consider the impact of different life phases across adulthood, says Franssen, which may help explain why most interventions aren’t successful.
Her group’s study was a cross-sectional analysis derived from a large public survey, Adult Health Monitor, in the province of Limburg. They examined associations between demographic, social and health-related variables and a scale of self-reported loneliness across the three age groups.
Nearly one in two people reported feeling lonely, climbing from 39.7% to 48.2% in young to older middle-aged adults. Other results suggested loneliness was related to being unmarried in the oldest age bracket and ethnic identity (non-Dutch origin) in the two younger groups.
Awareness of unique contributors at different life stages might help people address feelings of isolation caused by the situation the world presently finds itself in.
“For example, young adults are not able to interact with their friends or classmates face to face anymore,” says Franssen. “This may need to be taken into account when considering the impact on loneliness of the current pandemic.”
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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