Loneliness is a bitter pill that can make people depressed and even physically ill.
New research finds that while loneliness during certain parts of the life cycle can be explained, lonesomeness during other life decades — such as early middle age — cannot be explained by the normal causes.
For the study, psychologists Maike Luhmann and Louise C. Hawkley conducted a representative survey among 16,132 participants of the European Socio-economic Panel (SOEP) in 2013.
Their research shows that the loneliness elderly people experience is often due to their decreasing social interactions and oftentimes low income and health issues.
The researchers found, however, that there are also phases in early and mid-adulthood in which people tend to be lonely — for example, when people are in their early thirties and in their fifties.
Continuing on the age continuum, at approximately the age of sixty, the loneliness people often experience in their fifties decreases again, reaching a low point at approximately seventy.
In the study, “Age Differences in Loneliness From Late Adolescence to Oldest Old Age,” Luhmann and Hawkley attempted to discern the ebbs and flows of perceived loneliness. The research appears in the in the journal Developmental Psychology.
In one part of the study, they statistically controlled for a number of well-known risk factors such as income, gender, health, and social contacts.
“If we eliminate these factors from the overall result, the drastic increase of loneliness on old age disappears and a complex nonlinear trajectory is discernible,” says Maike Luhmann, a junior professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Cologne.
“This means that we can explain fairly accurately why old people tend to get lonely, but we do not yet know why there are phases in young and mid adulthood in which loneliness is more pronounced.”
The rise in loneliness in old age is mainly attributed to the loss of one’s spouse or to health problems. Both risk factors are widespread in this age group.
High income seems to be a protective factor: the higher a person’s income is, the less likely it is that he or she will become lonely. But money’s influence on loneliness was found to be more important in mid adulthood than in early or late adulthood.
Professional status is also especially important in mid adulthood. Having a good job safeguards against loneliness in this life phase.
Other factors influencing loneliness are distributed to different degrees across age groups, but always have an impact on loneliness, regardless of age.
For instance, health restrictions and the frequency of social interaction affect loneliness across the age spectrum.
The psychologists now want to explore why the risk of loneliness is particularly high in certain phases in early and mid adulthood.