Not Alone in Loneliness
About one-third of U.S. adults age 45 and older report feeling lonely — and, due to an increased number of aging adults, the number is growing.
A survey by AARP Foundation finds that those who have low income are especially vulnerable. Nearly half of midlife and older adults with annual incomes of less than $25,000 report being lonely. A full 10 million people over the age of 50 live in poverty in the United States.
People who are lonely and socially isolated are more likely to have health problems, which can have serious financial implications. Social isolation among midlife and older adults is associated with an estimated $6.7 billion in additional Medicare spending annually.
What Factors into Loneliness
The national survey of 3,020 midlife and older adults was designed to get a current snapshot of loneliness and how it relates to social isolation factors. Building on a previous study by AARP in 2010, it explores the relationship between loneliness and social connections, life experiences, health, and technology. Researchers used the UCLA Loneliness Scale, calculated from a battery of 20 questions, to measure loneliness.
Top predictors of loneliness: size and diversity of an individual’s social network and being physically isolated. Other contributing factors include age, depression, urbanicity, anxiety and overall health.
The results indicate loneliness has approximately the same incidence across race and ethnicity. New in this year’s study is the finding that LGBTQ status plays a role in loneliness. Midlife and older adults who identify as LGBTQ are more likely to be lonely (49%) compared to those who do not (35%). Adults who never married or who are divorced or separated tend to be lonelier than those married — although marital happiness is a factor. Just 26 percent of adults who are very or somewhat satisfied with their partner are lonely, compared to 48 percent who are very or somewhat unsatisfied. For unpaid caregivers, the loneliness gap is 8 percentage points higher than non-caregivers.
Also new in this year’s study is the finding that getting to know one’s neighbors can help reduce loneliness. Thirty-three percent of midlife and older adults who have ever spoken to their neighbors are lonely, compared with 61 percent who have never spoken to a neighbor.
Importantly, feelings of loneliness usually do not stem from one single event. While that may seem like a mere nuance within the findings, it has encouraging implications — specifically, that multiple opportunities may be available to intervene and quell loneliness by taking such actions as addressing social isolation.
While the findings that 35 percent of midlife and older adults are lonely is unchanged from 2010, the population of lonely people over age 45 has grown by 5 million, from 42.6 million to 47.8 million, in the past eight years. Of those individuals counted as being lonely, 41 percent say feelings of loneliness and isolation have persisted for six years or more, while 31 percent indicate they have felt lonely for one to five years, and 26 percent for up to a year — also unchanged from 2010.
The Social Media Age
Social media use among midlife and older adults has more than tripled since 2010. Now 42 percent report engaging in social media, up from AARP’s previous survey on loneliness, when only 13 percent used the likes of Facebook, Instagram and other platforms. Yet social media does not necessarily curb social isolation.
When other social isolation factors are controlled, use of technology for communication has a small but significant effect on loneliness: As people use social media more, they report feeling more lonely, according to the survey. When respondents are asked about how being online affects their relationships, their responses reveal that technology tends to amplify pre-existing attitudes.
Chronically lonely adults are more likely to turn to isolated activities to cope with loneliness, such as eating, watching television or surfing the internet, while people who are not chronically lonely tend to talk with a friend or go out with family.
Moving later in life can have negative social implications. People age 45 and older who have lived at their current address for 20 years or more have the lowest rates of loneliness (32%). By contrast, 40 percent of adults who have relocated in the past 10 years are considered lonely.
Midlife and older adults who volunteer, participate in clubs and attend religious services are less likely to be lonely than those who do not. Those in rural areas also reported lower levels of loneliness than those who lived in cities, and those who said they engaged in more frequent sexual activity also were less likely to be lonely.
Connectedness With Age
When it comes to loneliness, what can midlife and older people expect as they age? Controlling for all other variables, AARP finds that loneliness goes down as people get older. Respondents surveyed in their 40s and 50s were more likely to be lonely than those over age 60. This is consistent with similar research on age and happiness that shows a “midlife” dip in happiness and life satisfaction followed by a reversal of the trend in one’s late 50s or early 60s.
Data for the study were collected by GfK through the KnowledgePanel, an online research panel that is representative of the entire US population. The survey was fielded between June 5 and June 15, 2018, with surveys completed in both English and Spanish. The sample for the study consisted of 3,020 U.S. residents age 45 and older, as well as an oversample of the LGBTQ community.
Anderson, G. Oscar and Colette E. Thayer. Loneliness and Social Connections: A National Survey of Adults 45 and Older. Washington, DC: AARP Research, September 2018. https://doi.org/10.26419/res.00246.001