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."
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.
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.
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.
Living alone and growing old are not, by themselves, reliable predictors of loneliness. Indeed, as noted previously, our study found that loneliness decreases with age: Middle-aged survey respondents reported higher rates of chronic loneliness, dispelling the notion that loneliness and isolation are inevitable consequences of old age. Consider these numbers: 43 percent of adults ages 45 through 49 are lonely, similar to the 41 percent of 50- through 59-year-olds who report being lonely. That compares with just 32 percent of those ages 60 through 69, and just 25 percent of those age 70 or older, who are lonely.
The reasons aren't clear, but the finding jibes with another study, based on a Gallup survey of more than 340,000 adults that was released in June, which found that overall levels of life satisfaction go up as one gets older. In the survey, self-rankings of overall life satisfaction start out fairly high at age 18, decline until about age 50, then start rising until, by 85, people are generally quite happy, regardless of whether they're living with anyone else.
Perhaps something deep and spiritual is going on — or maybe not. "Once I started living alone, I was delighted to discover that I could eat crackers in bed, come home as late as I liked, and make all the mistakes I wanted without answering to anyone," says Virginia Ironside, 66, an advice columnist for the London Independent and author of You're Old, I'm Old…Get Used to It!
As a full-time caregiver to her husband, Jack, who has dementia, Annette Arthur, 88, has a different perspective. She and Jack have lived in the same Baltimore house for 50 years. The loss of their shared memories makes her lonely, yet she feels more satisfied with her life than she did in middle age. "The closer you get to the end of your life, the more you cherish it," she says. "I take a lot of pleasure being in my home, and I savor the days I'm given."
Boomers, by contrast, are increasingly dissatisfied: The percentage who are lonely among people in their 50s nearly doubled in the past 10 years, while loneliness among those in their 60s increased by almost 50 percent. It's partly a workplace issue. Most Americans are working harder and longer for less money: The median household income stalled between 2000 and 2007, and it has declined sharply in the years since then. That has shown people like Charlotte Henry, 62, of San Juan, Puerto Rico, just how dull the "all work, no play" scenario can be. Divorced and living alone, the independent contractor holds down two jobs to make ends meet. "Once I get home from work, make dinner for myself, and clean up after it, I'm exhausted," she says. "There's no way I'm going to get dressed and go out again."
The workplace has also become inescapable, with e-mail, texting, and Twitter making it difficut to unplug and socialize. This "persistently frantic state of busyness" threatens our connections with one another, write psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds and husband Richard Schwartz in The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the 21st Century. "People are so frazzled now when they're done working — if they ever are done working," says Olds, who practices in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and teaches at Harvard Medical School, as does her husband. "They just need a bit of solitude and downtime at the end of the day, and there's nothing wrong with that. But if you put socializing at the end of your to-do list, then you won't see people and you'll feel more isolated. You will also feel as if everyone else is leaving you out, even though you're the one who started it all by sending signals that you don't want company. So what started off as a reasonable wish fed on itself and became destructive."
Staying connected once you retire from a job, on the other hand, appears to thwart loneliness. Overall, retired people are less lonely than those not retired — probably because they have fewer obligations and thus more time for friends. Only 16 percent of retirees who continue to interact regularly with former coworkers are lonely, compared with 42 percent who do not interact at all with former colleagues. Additionally, almost half of older adults who had relocated to a new address in the past year were lonely. So if you can afford to retire to a dream home in the mountains or on the beach, congratulations — but put "Make new friends" high on your to-do list once you get there.
The Internet may sound like the perfect way to stay connected with old friends — and to make new ones — but Facebook is no substitute for face time. Although our survey found no evidence that social media are diminishing social connections, the results suggest that the Internet can make loneliness worse. Lonely respondents were more likely to agree with the statement "I have fewer deep connections now that I keep in touch with people using the Internet." Says loneliness expert Cacioppo: "Using social networking as a substitute for human contact can be like eating celery when you're hungry. It makes you feel better for a short while, but it isn't real nourishment, so you get hungrier in the long run."
This explains why Franklin Crawford spends his late nights roaming grocery aisles. He worked for 20 years as a reporter in newsrooms but now works from home, where he lives alone. "I miss that office because of the warm bodies, not the work," he says. "Despite my loneliness, I know I'm an outgoing person. But the computer isolates me. When I communicate without in-the-flesh contact, I fail to connect; in the meantime, though, I pretend it works. The problem with the meantime is that it gets to be all the time."
Loneliness is an equal-opportunity affliction. Men and women are about equally likely to be lonely. White, black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans are all about equally lonely. Geographic regions are all within a few percentage points of the national average. Nor does education make much of a difference, though low-income respondents (those earning less than $25,000 per year) were more likely to be lonely than those in the high-income bracket (more than $75,000 per year).
Shocking no one, married people are less lonely than those who are divorced, separated, or never married. But that wedding band doesn't have magical powers: 29 percent of married people reported being lonely. "There's nothing worse than being half of a couple that's not getting along," says Ironside, the London Independent advice columnist. "There are lots of difficult things about living alone, but at least no one is actively ignoring you."
Not surprisingly, 62 percent of respondents who said they are depressed also reported being lonely; depression and loneliness often appear together, and are often mistaken for each other, though they are two distinct mental states. Depression is feeling sad, lethargic, apathetic, and listless; loneliness is feeling alienated, threatened, hostile, and desperate. "A person can be depressed but not lonely if a loving friend or family member is there to comfort and support them," says Cacioppo. "You can also be in a reasonably good mood about life in general but still feel socially isolated, if you don't know and trust the people around you."
Consider the case of Emily White. She was a successful lawyer who lived alone and often worked alone; after losing her father to cancer in 2001, she retreated to a solitary routine of home and office that went on for years and deepened into chronic loneliness. "It was maddening," she says. "My friends were becoming parents and partners, and I felt left behind. I tried to socialize, but no matter what I did, I couldn't find a sense of connection. I told myself the feeling would lift, but it didn't. It became a constant, solid presence in my life."
White, 40, who wrote about her experiences in the memoir Lonely, says she always knew she was lonely and not depressed. "The strange thing about my loneliness was that it didn't darken my view of life as a whole. I always had this sense that if I could just connect with someone, my life would actually be pretty good."
Perhaps the scariest thing about loneliness is its links to serious medical problems. More than half of the respondents who reported being in poor health were lonely, compared with one-quarter who reported being in excellent health. And though there's no way to establish a direct cause and effect from our findings, the percentages of the lonely among those diagnosed with obesity (43 percent), sleep disorders (45 percent), chronic pain (47 percent), and anxiety (56 percent) were considerably higher than the 35 percent who are lonely overall. Could loneliness be contributing to these conditions? "Studies have shown that people sleep more poorly, exercise less, eat more fats and sugars, and are more anxious when they feel lonely than when they are not," says Cacioppo. "In addition, the research has shown that illness and disability can leave people more isolated and lonely."
But amid these disturbing statistics emerged one heartening surprise: Respondents who had been diagnosed with cancer had the lowest rate of loneliness — just 24 percent. A puzzling percentage, until you talk to a cancer survivor such as Bob Riter, 54, acting executive director of the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes in Ithaca, New York. "Cancer is the great equalizer," he says. "It is a life-or-death situation that throws people together regardless of their backgrounds. You form bonds similar to the bonds soldiers have." Riter, who underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer, has been cancer free for 14 years. But he still attends a weekly breakfast group where college professors, construction workers, and firefighters gather as friends united by the shared experience of fighting cancer. "All those sympathetic ears make it hard to stay lonely," Riter says.
The key takeaway from our survey? Social connections are critical when it comes to warding off loneliness. "We've known for a long time that people who do not feel connected to something outside themselves feel a malaise, as if there's a hole in their lives," says psychiatrist Jacqueline Olds. This may account for the fact that only 27 percent of the people who say they are "very religious or spiritual" are lonely, compared with 43 percent who report they aren't religious at all. At the same time, 44 percent of respondents who never attend religious services reported feeling lonely, compared with 30 percent who attend services once a month or more.
Similarly, only 28 percent of those who had donated their time at a school, hospital, or other nonprofit organization in the past 12 months are lonely, along with 26 percent of folks who belong to a book club, garden group, or other social organization. This compares with 41 percent who had not volunteered and 39 percent who belonged to no social groups. "Any situation where people meet regularly to work together on some common cause is likely to result in deepening relationships," says Olds. "It's good for the soul."
Confidants — those you know and trust, and who offer you support — are likewise vital. We asked our respondents how many people they had in their lives with whom they could discuss matters of personal importance. Almost two-thirds of those who answered "none" — and close to half of those who had one or two such people — were lonely. Loneliness was much less common among those who had three or four confidants (32 percent), and it was lower still for those who had five or more (21 percent). When we asked how many people had been supportive of them in the past year, 76 percent of those who reported having no supportive persons in their lives were lonely, compared with just one-third who had at least one. Cacioppo's prescription for happiness: "People who need social connections should think about being alone in the same way a person with high blood pressure thinks about salt."
But making connections can be daunting for the lonely. Emily White volunteered at several charities while she was lonely, and although she found it satisfying, she did not find someone in whom she could confide. "My family was always urging me to just get out and meet people," she says. "But that advice didn't correspond to the reality of my loneliness. The lonelier I became, the harder it was for me to socialize. I knew that I needed connections, but creating them seemed almost impossibly challenging."
Alas, there are no easy solutions for people like Emily. Unlike treatments for depression, there are no pills or established therapies for loneliness. Social connections and a circle of intimates are obvious antidotes, but establishing them can be a trial.
So, where can the lonely turn for help? Loneliness is only now being recognized as a distinct mental health issue in the United States, and credible anti-loneliness programs have yet to be developed. Dialogue with a therapist is the only recourse at this point — that and a willingness to probe the roots of one's isolation.
Lonely author Emily White has a partner now, and she finds socializing less intimidating. The onset of her recovery, she says, came when she discovered the research on loneliness. "Start with education," she says. "Learning about loneliness can be a powerful tool in responding to it."
What White learned was that chronic loneliness can end only when the person who has it looks in the mirror and sees an entirely different person, someone who draws support and meaning from others instead of just themselves. But a change this profound cannot happen overnight. So when she met the woman who became her partner, White moved into the relationship gradually, with lots of breaks for alone time.
"I know now that I am vulnerable," she admits, "and that loneliness will probably re-emerge in my future. But I have learned that connection is critical. If I have to work to keep loneliness at bay, that's what I'll do."
Brad Edmondson is the former editor of American Demographics magazine. He lives in Ithaca, New York.