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People experience loneliness differently depending on their age © Getty Images

People experience loneliness differently depending on their age

Published: 06th August, 2020 at 12:13

Loneliness interventions should be developed for specific age groups, say researchers, as the factors that make someone feel lonely change throughout their life.

Loneliness in adult life is experienced differently depending on age, a new study suggests.


Scientists say their findings mean there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to combating loneliness.

This is because factors associated with it, such as contact with friends and family, perceived health or employment, may differ across the phases of the adult life span.

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Thanée Franssen, the corresponding author, said: “Our results also suggest that during the current COVID-19 pandemic, feelings of loneliness among adults may be impacted in different ways according to the important factors of their life phase.

“For example, young adults are not able to interact with their friends or classmates face-to-face any more.

“This may need to be taken into account when considering the impact on loneliness of the current pandemic.”

Chronic loneliness is as bad for health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, research has previously shown. It's worse than obesity, and is associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke.

Researchers at Maastricht University and in the Public Health Service South-Limburg in the Netherlands used data collected in the Netherlands from September to December 2016.

They examined associations between demographic, social and health-related factors and loneliness in 6,143 young (19-34 years), 8,418 early middle-aged (35-49 years) and 11,758 late middle-aged adults (50-65 years).

The study published in the open access journal BMC Public Health, found that overall, 10,309 (44.3 per cent) individuals reported experiencing loneliness.

Among young adults, 2,042 (39.7 per cent) people reported feelings of loneliness, compared to 3,108 (43.3 per cent) early-middle aged adults, and 5,159 late middle-aged adults (48.2 per cent).

The study found that only early and late middle-aged adults felt loneliness associated with the frequency of contact with their family © Getty Images
The study found that only early and late middle-aged adults felt loneliness associated with the frequency of contact with their family © Getty Images

The researchers found a number of common factors associated with loneliness across all of the ages.

These included living alone, frequency of neighbour contact, psychological distress, and psychological and emotional wellbeing.

The strongest association with loneliness was found for those who felt excluded from society.

However, some factors were only present in specific age groups.

Young adults showed the strongest association between contact frequency with friends and loneliness.

According to the study, educational level was associated with loneliness among young adults only, while an association between employment status and loneliness was found solely among early middle-aged adults.

Frequency of family contact was associated with loneliness only among early and late middle-aged adults. While for late middle-aged adults only, perceived health was associated with loneliness.

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The scientists suggest people may feel lonely if what is the norm for their age group – like completing school, being employed or having children – is not reflective of their actual situation.

The difference in factors associated with loneliness between age groups may be because different factors are considered the norm at different stages of adult life.

Franssen said: “The identification of the factors associated with loneliness is necessary to be able to develop and target appropriate interventions.

“Unfortunately, most of the current interventions seem to be limited in their effect. A possible reason for this may be that most interventions for adults are universal.

“Results of this study showed that interventions should be developed for specific age groups.”


The authors caution that some factors that may affect people’s perception of loneliness – such as relationship quality – were not included in the current study, and due to the cross-sectional nature of the study, it was not possible to establish cause and effect.

Reader Q&A: Is waving back at a stranger on a bridge a sign of happiness?

Asked by: Nick Wilthew, Newport Pagnell

Waving back is a sort of ‘affiliative behaviour’, something that promotes bonding between members of a group. Experimentally, it’s seen more in pleasant, non-urban environments: such studies implicate mood, although they don’t assess happiness directly.

From the other side, several studies have manipulated mood to investigate social interaction, although I couldn’t find any specifically looking at mood and affiliative behaviour. So it’s a great research suggestion! I would expect to see a correlation, if only because unhappy or depressed people often avoid social contact. What’s more, people usually seek ‘mood congruent’ activities: they’re drawn to cheerful things when happy, to sad ones when unhappy. Happiness even causes people to evaluate social interactions in a positive light.

But you should bear in mind that experimental subjects also seek ‘mood incongruent’ stimulation before meeting strangers, probably to moderate their mood (‘cool’ is usually more socially acceptable). Also, your basic personality will probably be much more influential: some people may always wave back, others never.

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Amy BarrettEditorial Assistant, BBC Science Focus

Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.


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