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Adults suffer from loneliness in different ways ‘depending on age’

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

Factors associated with feelings of loneliness, such as contact with friends and family, perceived health and employment, differ throughout adult life, scientists say. 

Researchers found that these various factors caused loneliness in different measures across three age groups – young adults, the middle aged and the old aged. 

Younger adults were more impacted by a lack of contact with their friends, for example, while in older adults, perceived health and lack of contact with family members were factors associated with loneliness.

Dutch scientists say their findings mean there can be no ‘one-size-fits-all approach’ to combating loneliness, which has become a huge problem during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The team speculate that people missing out on what they think is the norm for people of their age – such as young people have fun out with friends – can trigger lonely feelings.  

‘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,’ said study author Thanee Franssen at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. 

‘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.’ 

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

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

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

Among young adults, 2,042 (39.7 per cent) 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 researchers found a number of common factors associated with loneliness across all of the age groups. 

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 only – for example, young adults showed the strongest association between their frequency of contact 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. 

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. 

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

‘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.

Also, due to the cross-sectional nature of the study, it was not possible to establish cause and effect.

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