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December 11, 2019

Senior citizens are not experiencing a 'loneliness epidemic'

Today's seniors are not any more lonely than previous generations, research shows

Senior Health Loneliness
Senior Citizens Loneliness Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

Senior citizens are experiencing loneliness at the same rates of previous generations, studies find.

Health experts and media reports have raised concerns that elderly citizens are lonelier than previous generations. But that belief may not be accurate.

Two American Psychological Association studies suggest that the increasing number of senior citizens alive today makes it appear as if loneliness is more prevalent.

"We found no evidence that older adults have become any lonelier than those of a similar age were a decade before," Louise C. Hawkley, of NORC at the University of Chicago and a lead author of one of the studies, said in a statement.

"However, average reported loneliness begins to increase beyond age 75, and therefore, the total number of older adults who are lonely may increase once the baby boomers reach their late 70s and 80s."

The first study, conducted by Hawkley and her colleagues, found that loneliness decreased between the ages of 50 and 74, but then increased after age 75. No differences were discovered between baby boomers and earlier generations. 

The researchers based their findings on data from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project and the Health and Retirement Study. These two national surveys compared groups of older adults between 2005 and 2006, 2010 and 2011, and 2015 and 2016.

"Loneliness levels may have decreased for adults between 50 and 74 because they had better educational opportunities, health care and social relationships than previous generations," Hawkley said.

"Our research suggests that older adults who remain in good health and maintain social relationships with a spouse, family or friends tend to be less lonely."

The second study, conducted by researchers in the Netherlands, also found that older adults are less lonely today than those of past generations. Researchers based their findings on the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam, in which participants were asked to rate loneliness on a sliding scale. 

"In contrast to assuming a loneliness epidemic exists, we found that older adults who felt more in control and therefore managed certain aspects of their lives well, such as maintaining a positive attitude and setting goals, such as going to the gym, were less lonely," lead author Bianca Suanet, of Vrize University Amsterdam, said. 

Both studies were published in the journal Psychology and Aging.

Feelings of loneliness and isolation can lead to depression and various health issues associated with aging. 

The impact of loneliness on the body is believed to be similar to the effects of chronic stress. According to Aging Care, "it raises the levels of stress hormones like cortisol in the body, which impairs immune responses and contributes to inflammation, mental illness and conditions like heart disease and diabetes."

Friendship can combat loneliness and reduce the risk of mortality and certain diseases, according to Robin Caruso of CareMore Health. Reaching out to lonely people can help them engage more with their neighbors and peers.

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