Over time, the heightened stress that comes with chronic loneliness takes an emotional and physical toll. The lonely find it difficult to control their emotions. They overreact to small things and feel threatened when approached by strangers. They withdraw further, and a downward spiral begins. "Lonely people have more miserable lives," says Cacioppo, "and earlier deaths."
Everyone feels lonely from time to time. It's normal to feel lonely after a loss, for example, such as a divorce or a death in the family. Therapists call this situational loneliness, a painful but temporary condition. It differs from chronic loneliness, a destructive cycle that is difficult to reverse (the " lonely" in this article are chronically lonely). "If a person with a high need for connection suffers a loss or fails to nurture relationships, they are at greater risk of falling into chronic loneliness," says Cacioppo, coauthor of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. The destructive cycle begins when a painful rejection or loss makes a person fear more rejection. That fear in turn generates a defensiveness that makes it harder to connect with other people.
43 percent of respondents 45 through 49 are chronically lonely, compared with just 25 percent of those 70 and older.
According to the Census Bureau, 127 million Americans are over age 45. That means, based on our survey results, that more than 44 million older adults suffer from chronic loneliness. These numbers corroborate a controversial study published four years ago, which found that social networks are shrinking: The percentage of Americans who say they have no one to discuss important matters with rose from 10 percent in 1985 to more than 24 percent in 2004; those with just one or two confidants increased from 31 percent to 38 percent.
This increase was so rapid that some experts insisted it couldn't be real. But it didn't surprise Robert Putnam, Ph.D., the Harvard professor whose 2000 book Bowling Alone charted a long-term decline in Americans' civic engagement. "Boomers have been more socially disengaged than their parents all their adult lives," he says.
The severe recession that started in 2007 has likely contributed to the rise as well. "The general effect of economic hard times in the past has been that people hunker down and withdraw from their communities," says Putnam, who studied trends in group membership, church going, and other social activities throughout the 20th century. Add to that the rapid increase in single-person households, from 20.6 million in 1985 to 31.7 million in 2009. More than 70 percent of these households consist of a person 45 or older. What we end up with is a society primed for loneliness.