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Reasons for Loneliness May Differ by Generation

Mar 16, 2020

New research suggests loneliness persists in equal measure among various generations. However, the origin of feeling lonely may be different over the course of life. Investigators found that living alone increases the risk of loneliness in older age whereas in midlife feeling isolated is more linked to personality traits.

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, believes loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And, the problem is particularly acute among seniors, especially during holidays or when isolated.

Two in five Americans report that they sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful, and one in five say they feel lonely or socially isolated. The lack of connection can have life threatening consequences. The good news is that friendships reduce the risk of mortality or developing certain diseases and can speed recovery in those who fall ill. Moreover, simply reaching out to lonely or isolated people through email, phone calls, home visits and community programs can help them to engage.

In the new study, University of Edinburgh psychologists discovered resiliency is a key skill set to combat the detrimental effects of loneliness. Researchers discovered emotionally-resilient people —those more able to adapt in stressful situations — are less at risk of loneliness at any age, and outgoing middle-aged people are less likely to feel lonely.

For those over 70, living alone was associated with more loneliness, with the issue being more acute for men. In the study, which appears in the journal Psychological Medicine, researchers examined data from more than 4000 people older than 45 for loneliness, personality traits, and living circumstances.
People were asked to rate how lonely they felt. Their personality traits were also tested using a framework called the Five-Factor Model.

Investigators sought to determine if relationships between personality traits such as emotional stability, and social variables such as living alone, were causes for loneliness. Software algorithms or machine learning computations were used to analyze the data and formulate predictions.

Results were compared between people in midlife — from 45 to 69 years old — and those in their 70s. A major strength of the study is that two separate samples represented each age group, and the same effects were found across samples in each age group.

The researchers found similar levels of loneliness in both groups.

On average, people with a strong capacity to maintain emotional balance under stressful circumstances were 60 per cent less likely to be lonely, regardless of their age.

Middle-aged people who were more extroverted were, on average, 55 per cent less likely to be lonely. Social isolation was not significantly associated with loneliness in the 45 to 69 age group.

People over 70 who lived alone were more than four times more likely to feel lonely than those who did not live alone.

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