Loneliness is a prevalent and serious problem impacting health, well-being, and longevity of people. Looking to develop effective interventions, researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine examined the psychological and environmental factors that lead to patterns of loneliness in different age groups.
Researchers used a web-based survey of 2,843 participants between the ages of 20 and 69, all based in the United States.
The study, published on Tuesday in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, found that levels of loneliness peaked among people in their 20s, and were lowest among those in their 60s, with another peak in the mid-40s.
“What we found was a range of predictors of loneliness across the lifespan,” said Dilip V. Jeste, corresponding senior author of the study, and Senior Associate Dean for Healthy Aging and Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the UC San Diego School of Medicine.
The researchers noted that lower levels of empathy and compassion, smaller social networks, not having a spouse or a partner, and greater sleep disturbances were consistent predictors of loneliness across all age groups.
Lower social self-efficacy – or the ability to reflect confidence in exerting control over one’s own motivation, behaviour, and social environment – and higher anxiety were associated with worse feelings of loneliness in all age groups, except those in their 60s. Loneliness was also associated with a lower level of decisiveness for those in their 50s.
The study confirmed previous reports of a strong inverse association between loneliness and wisdom, especially the pro-social behaviours component (empathy and compassion).
“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 behaviour toward others, and thereby increasing their own social self-efficacy and social networks,” said Jeste.
Moreover, the survey suggested that people in their 20s were dealing with high stress and pressure, while trying to establish a career and find a life partner.
Tanya Nguyen, PhD, first author of the study, and Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine, said, “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. The lower level of self-efficacy may lead to greater loneliness.”
People in their 40s start to experience physical challenges and health issues, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
“Individuals may start to lose loved ones close to them. Their children are growing up and are becoming more independent,” Nguyen said, “This greatly impacts self-purpose and may cause a shift in self-identify, resulting in increased loneliness.”
Jeste also said that the findings are especially relevant during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“We want to understand what strategies may be effective in reducing loneliness during this challenging time,” said Jeste, “Loneliness is worsened by the physical distancing that is necessary to stop the spread of the pandemic.”
Nguyen added that intervention and prevention efforts should consider stage-of-life issues.
“There is a need for a personalised and nuanced prioritising of prevention targets in different groups of people,” said Jeste.