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Loneliness Hits Young & Older Adults

Severe Health Consequences Involved

Loneliness impacts physical and mental well-being

By John Salak –

It appears the world is a lonely place, especially for younger and older adults. Estimates vary, but one report notes that overall about one in three people in the U.S. report being lonely on a regular basis. The same source indicates that about 60 percent of younger people claim they are chronically lonely.

These and other estimates support a recent report by Northwestern Medicine that describes loneliness in adults worldwide following a u-shaped pattern where it is higher in younger and older adulthood and lowest during middle adulthood.

Loneliness isn’t just a sad condition. It has the potential to undermine the physical and mental well-being of those dealing with these chronic feelings. Northwestern Medicine identified several risk factors for heightened loneliness across the whole lifespan, including social isolation, sex, education and physical impairment.

“What was striking was how consistent the uptick in loneliness is in older adulthood,” said corresponding author Eileen Graham, an associate professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “There’s a wealth of evidence that loneliness is related to poorer health, so we wanted to better understand who is lonely and why people are becoming lonelier as they age out of midlife so we can hopefully start finding ways to mitigate it.”

Loneliness has been linked to a higher risk of mortality, with one study finding that loneliness can be as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to Discovery ABA Therapy. When in a chronic condition, it can also lead to a weakened immune system, increased inflammation, higher levels of stress hormones, depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

The group went on to note that loneliness has also been linked to cognitive decline and dementia in older adults.

Graham stressed that Northwestern’s findings underscore the need for targeted interventions to reduce social disparities throughout adulthood to hopefully reduce levels of loneliness, especially among older adults. Researchers found that individuals facing higher persistent loneliness were disproportionately women, more isolated, less educated, had lower income and more functional limitations, were divorced or widowed and were smokers. They also had poorer cognitive, physical or mental health.

“Our study is unique because it harnessed the power of all these datasets to answer the same question—how does loneliness change across the lifespan, and what factors contribute to becoming more or less lonely over time?” she said.

Of note, Graham stressed that the relationship between social interaction and loneliness is complex. “You can have a lot of social interaction and still be lonely or, alternatively, be relatively isolated and not feel lonely,” she said.

The research team reported that chronic loneliness in younger adults may reflect the transition they are making from adolescence when many are navigating several important life changes including those involving education, careers, friend groups, relationship partners and families.

“As people age and develop through young adulthood into midlife, they start to set down roots and become established, solidifying adult friend groups, social networks and life partners,” noted co-author Tomiko Yoneda, an assistant professor of psychology at University of California, Davis. “We do have evidence that married people tend to be less lonely, so for older adults who are not married, finding ongoing points of meaningful social contact will likely help mitigate the risk of persistent loneliness.”





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