It's late on a Wednesday night, and Franklin Crawford, 52, is pushing a shopping cart around a 24-hour grocery store in Ithaca, New York. He's found the bananas and cat food he needs, but as he roams the aisles he adds ice cream and other nonessentials to his basket. "This is the meeting place, the agora," he explains. "It's the abundance, the people, the bright light. It makes me feel good."
Crawford visits a store like this almost every day. This one is his favorite because the café stays open until 10 p.m. and the security guard lets him hang out if he buys something. Paying for stuff is not the problem. Crawford is employed. He is also fit, well dressed, and well read. Other good-looking, well-dressed people are also here alone, slowly pushing carts of their own. Most of them don't seem to be in a hurry, either, but Crawford says he usually doesn't make eye contact or start conversations. "I don't think we really want that from each other," he says. "Sometimes I think maybe we despise each other, because we're all here instead of home with someone else."
Today more than 44 million adults over age 45 suffer from chronic loneliness.
Crawford is lonely — but he's not alone. A groundbreaking AARP The Magazine survey reveals that millions of older Americans suffer from chronic loneliness, and their ranks are swelling: Of the 3,012 people ages 45 and up who participated in our study, 35 percent are chronically lonely (as rated on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a standard measurement tool), compared with 20 percent in a similar survey a decade ago. Loneliness was equally prevalent regardless of race, gender, or education levels. Unexpectedly, though, age does make a difference: Those who said they are suffering most are not the oldest among us but rather adults in their 40s and 50s.
Chronic loneliness, experts tell us, is an ever-present, self-perpetuating condition that pushes people away from the relationships that sustain us and make us happy. But the chronically lonely are not merely unhappy — they are in danger. "Loneliness has surprisingly broad and profound health effects," says John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago and a leading authority on the topic. There is mounting evidence that loneliness significantly increases the chances of diabetes, sleep disorders, and other potentially life-threatening problems. Research has also shown a greater risk of high blood pressure among lonely people, as well as higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, weakened immune systems, and Alzheimer's disease.