Loneliness is increasing in developed countries throughout the world. It affects as many as 25% of people in the US. The UK and Japan, among other countries, are devoting resources to address loneliness in their populations. More specifically at home, loneliness affects over 40% of Americans at midlife. And midlife loneliness often leads to health problems.
This post explores the causes of loneliness as well as its associated health risks, particularly for people at midlife and beyond. It also helps you recognize midlife loneliness in yourself or a loved one. A later post will offer tips to overcome loneliness at midlife.
More Americans are living alone
In 1940, the first year when the US Census measured the number of people per household, about 7% of people lived in one-person households. In 1960, it was about 14%. Now over a quarter of US households are one-person households.
Americans have fewer confidants
Just living alone doesn’t mean you’re lonely. Many people who live alone have strong social connections. And others who live in multi-person households can perceive themselves to be socially isolated.
Of more concern than stats on the number of one-person households is a decline in the number of “core discussion networks.” Between 1985 and 2004, the mean number of people with whom Americans “discuss important matters” has dropped by almost a third. In 1985 it stood at 2.94 such confidants per person on average. In 2004 the mean response was 2.08.
Another troubling finding in this Duke University study is that almost 25% of people have no one with whom they discuss important matters. This is about twice as many as those who replied “no one” in 1985.
In a 2010 study commissioned by the AARP, researchers found that loneliness is higher in midlife than old age. Using the UCLA Loneliness Scale, they measured the percent of lonely adults by age group:
- Ages 45-40 – 43%
- Ages 50-59 – 41%
- Ages 60-69 – 32%
- Ages 70+ – 25%
Their demographic analysis showed lower-income respondents to be more lonely. They also noted greater loneliness among divorced/separated/never married survey participants. But there were no statistically significant differences in loneliness among people of different races.
Why does midlife loneliness matter?
For one thing, loneliness doesn’t feel good. At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s hard to enjoy your life when you’re feeling isolated and friendless. Loneliness and depression often go hand in hand. As mental health conditions, both of them result in personal suffering.
Loneliness affects your physical health, too. Loneliness may be worse for your health than obesity, smoking, lack of exercise or poor nutrition. A meta-analysis by BYU researchers concluded that social isolation increases your risk of death by as much as 30%.
The neuroscience of loneliness
University of Chicago psychology professor John T. Cacioppo was the first to investigate physiological effects of loneliness. He found that lonely people developed higher vascular resistance. This is a tightening of the blood vessels which leads to increased blood pressure and wear and tear on the circulatory system.
Cacioppo’s research also measured higher levels of stress hormones like cortisol circulating in the bloodstreams of lonely subjects. He found that lonely people live at a higher “state of alert” than non-lonely people do.
Thus loneliness causes people to respond more poorly to environmental stressors – both psychological and physiological ones. Lonely people may exhibit higher levels of irritation or anger when things don’t go their way. And their immune systems can be weaker, leaving them more susceptible to illness.
Cacioppo goes into greater detail on the neuroscience of loneliness in his book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.*
Cognition and other health effects
The increased levels of stress hormones and inflammation that accompany loneliness can put you at greater risk for dementia, obesity, diabetes, arthritis and heart disease. So in summary, there’s no upside to midlife loneliness. You feel bad if you’re lonely now. And midlife loneliness sets you up for health problems that can make you feel bad later on, too.
What causes loneliness?
In 2000 Robert Putnam published his classic text, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.*. In it, he describes the breakdown of social structures like bowling leagues, PTAs, churches and so forth. Putnam links this disintegration to an increasing sense of isolation among Americans. He argues that the result is a loss of “social capital” we need to rebuild.
Much of the social science research on loneliness in the past two decades is informed by Putnam’s hypotheses. Scholars cite numerous cultural shifts leading to increased loneliness. Among them:
- job mobility – people move away or abroad for work
- frantic pace of life and work – need to “get away from it all”
- cult of busyness – appeal of looking busy even if you aren’t
- our online lives – always-on access, social media pressures, increasing entertainment options at home
- longer commute times – more time spent alone in your car
- emphasis on more personal spiritual practices – decline of faith communities
- increasing wealth – paying for help instead of asking a neighbor
Tension: American individualism and loneliness
In their fascinating book, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century,* Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz explore how the American value of individualism contrasts with our human need for social connection.
The cowboy: rugged and self-reliant
The myth of the American cowboy, rugged and self-reliant, still dominates our collective mindset. Even current movies exalt the outsider-hero, the one who stands alone against evil. This outsider hero values justice. He detests and defies the actions of evil insiders. Almost single-handedly, he rights the wrongs that oppress innocent victims.
In the American consciousness, self-reliance is good. But the value we place on individualism is at odds with our human need for connection. As Olds and Schwartz put it:
The problem with the mythic elevation of the outsider to savior is that it makes us proud and complacent when we feel left out and apart.
The pioneer: individual but also connected
Our country was settled by people who left their families and struck out on their own. But to survive and succeed in the New World, these outsiders had to connect with others.
Now technological advances and modern stresses diminish our need for others and threaten our ability to connect. The result is increasing loneliness, with consequences for individuals and society.
It can be hard to spot midlife loneliness
Sometimes it’s easy to recognize that you feel lonely, or that a loved one may be struggling with loneliness. However, there’s a stigma about loneliness that makes you resist acknowledging it in yourself or someone else. In fact, many people would rather admit they feel depressed than that they feel lonely.
For example, you may feel lonely. At the same time, you fear that acknowledging this emotion would expose you to others’ judgment. You worry they might exclude you as a misfit, or a loser. Loneliness does strange things to your perceptions. It can be hard to admit loneliness, even to yourself.
Avoiding loneliness with busyness
You might resist loneliness by keeping busy, immersing yourself in your work or activities. You surround yourself with acquaintances and social commitments. But still you feel lonely on the inside.
I know. For years I stayed busy. I raised our children, worked and volunteered, organized parties and teams, attended community galas. Most of the time, I enjoyed the pace. But occasionally I’d slow down and have time to think, time to feel. When I paused my busyness, I’d feel lonely. Or sad. Or both. It was more comfortable to stay busy.
Yet keeping your mood up in this way comes at a cost. For me, it was depression when my children started leaving for college. If busyness is an issue for you, check out Yvonne Tally’s Breaking up with Busy.* I review it here.
Signs you might have midlife loneliness
Midlife is a time when many life transitions can leave you with a sense of loss. Here are some questions to help you consider if you might be confronting midlife loneliness:
- Have you experienced a major life event recently? (e.g. illness, retirement, divorce or death of a spouse, empty nest)
- Are you a caregiver for an elderly relative, child or another person? (8 out of 10 caregivers report feeling isolated)
- Do you have hearing loss? (diminished hearing can lead to one’s feeling left out of conversations)
- Are you “too busy” to make plans with friends?
- Do you turn down invitations so often that people may have stopped inviting you?
- Do you find you’re hungry even after eating? (see this study re the hunger hormone ghrelin and loneliness)
- How do you score on this short online quiz based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale?
Recognize loneliness as a warning
Cacioppo counsels that by recognizing loneliness, we can do something about it before it leads to depression and other health risks:
Loneliness, like hunger, is a warning to do something to alter an uncomfortable and possibly dangerous condition.
The next post will look at ways to overcome midlife loneliness. Before you can confront this risk to your physical and mental health, however, you have to acknowledge its power over your life.
Everyone feels lonely from time to time. But persistent loneliness is different. Treat it like a warning – not something you ignore and hope will go away on its own.
You can beat midlife loneliness. Start by seeing it for what it is.
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