Middle-aged man staring into space

Loneliness is on the rise around the world, with almost a quarter of people aged 15 or older reporting being very or fairly lonely. This is disturbing news, as loneliness has been tied to all kinds of problems, including higher stress, poorer sleep, and reduced cognitive and physical health.

While young adults aged 19-29 appeared to be the largest group of lonely people in the Gallup poll, they are certainly not alone. Adults in midlife are also suffering from loneliness, especially in the United States. In fact, according to a new study, they may be just as bad off as other age groups—and much lonelier than midlife adults in other countries, too.

Aging in isolation

In the study, researchers gathered data based on in-person and telephone interviews made with thousands of midlife adults (aged 45-65) in the U.S., Britain, and Europe between 2002-2018. Adults were contacted every six years and asked to report on how much they lacked companionship, felt left out, and felt isolated from others—measures of loneliness.

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By looking at how the data varied by different generations represented in the data—early Boomers, late Boomers, and GenXers—and comparing groups with each other and with other countries, the researchers made some interesting discoveries about how midlife Americans were faring.

One major finding is that midlife Americans were much lonelier than their British and European counterparts. This was “alarming” to lead researcher, Frank Infurna of Arizona State University, who was surprised by how much worse it is here than elsewhere—and therefore potentially telling.

“If we had just looked at the U.S., people might think, ‘Yeah, we know things are bad here,’ and leave it at that. But comparing us with other nations provides a broader picture, showing it’s definitely an American issue,” he says.

Infurna and his team also found that middle-aged adults in the United States, England, and Mediterranean Europe (Italy, Spain, and Greece) from more recently born generations reported higher levels of loneliness than earlier-born people. In addition, though loneliness tended to go down as people passed through their middle years, that decline was much less rapid in these same midlife adults.

This suggests loneliness is not only rising, but becoming a stickier problem among middle-aged adults in the U.S.—and that doesn’t even count the effects of the pandemic.

“Loneliness has generally been increasing over what we call ‘historical time,’ across cohorts and generations,” says Infurna.

Less support, more loneliness

Why is that happening in American middle-aged adults?

It’s possible that the nature and intensity of midlife is different nowadays than it was for previous generations, says Infurna, and that’s contributing to loneliness. Higher expectations for caregiving (both aging parents or adult children who still need support), coupled with financial hardship from recent financial crises, could have left people little time to develop their social connections beyond work or family.

However, these loneliness patterns weren’t observed everywhere in the data. In continental Europe (France, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Israel) and Nordic Europe (Denmark, Netherlands, and Sweden), loneliness levels were much lower, and they didn’t rise as much over time.

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That could mean other countries have cultural norms that help prevent loneliness, Infurna says. For example, people in the U.S. are more apt to uproot themselves and move far away from their families and friends. That might make loneliness more prevalent here.

“When you do that, you’re lifting yourself out of the community and having to find a new community, and that’s very challenging to do,” he says. “If you’re moving around a lot, you may not have firm roots to engage with your neighbors or your community. So, you won’t have that built-in support system to rely on in times of need.”

It’s also possible that social policies that help support people in other countries prevent loneliness, says Infurna. For example, within the U.S., middle-aged adults often have to pay for childcare while they work and take unpaid leave time from work to care for a family member, which can be expensive and stressful. Other countries provide support for families in those situations, like paid leave or free child care. That can make people feel as if others care about their family’s well-being, and that they live in a supportive society.

“Having a safety net to fall back on lets you know that you’re not alone in this endeavor,” says Infurna.

Steps to take against loneliness

Though the study’s findings appear to be bad news for middle-aged Americans currently, it doesn’t mean that we are doomed to increasing loneliness. There are steps we can take that could make a difference, including just understanding the problem better and doing more research.

For example, Infurna points to Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s public warning about a “loneliness epidemic” in the U.S., which has put it on the public radar as a health concern. Countries like Britain and Japan have created “Minister of Loneliness” positions in government, he says, to help call attention to the issues and find solutions.

But it’s not only up to the government. Each of us could try advancing social connection in our own lives and help decrease loneliness in ourselves and others, says Infurna. There are many ways to fight loneliness, and too many of us don’t take the time or understand the importance of doing that.

“It can just be as simple as knowing who your neighbors are and having interactions with them, but also prioritizing social connection,” he says.

Though more research needs to be done to understand these patterns in the U.S., Infurna is hopeful that by making comparisons between groups in different countries, we can learn what others are doing right when it comes to fighting loneliness. Perhaps looking at the relationship between different social policies and loneliness might steer us toward creating a more supportive, socially-connected society.

“There’s value in looking at how different age groups are developing and functioning, not only within one nation, but relative to other nations. A lot of valuable information can be gleaned from that, particularly potential reasons why it’s happening and the potential policy implications,” says Infurna. “There’s so much else happening within and across the world, and it’s important to keep that in mind.”

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