Human communication dynamics have changed substantially in the past few decades. It wasn’t long ago that if you wanted to talk to someone, you needed to be physically next to them. But phones became commonplace in the 20th century, and nowadays, we always have smartphones on us, we talk through the internet, we communicate via social media, and interact in a number of ways that just didn’t exist before.
The way we communicate isn’t the only thing that has changed, our social structure has changed as well. We spend less time with our family and friends, and everything seems to be sped up. This has led to what many people see as an epidemic of loneliness.
There are also other factors which have been considered to contribute to this matter. People are more likely to divorce, they’re more likely to live alone, they are less likely to be part of communities… there are valid reasons to believe this idea.
“Media portrayals of a loneliness “epidemic” are premised on an increase in the proportion of people living alone and decreases in rates of civic engagement and religious affiliation over recent decades,” the authors of a new study on loneliness write.
But objectively, that has not really been proven. Researchers wanted to analyze this in older adults. They looked at self-perceived loneliness data to get some insights into what shapes loneliness and what recent trends can be observed.
According to cognitive psychology, loneliness is a result of a discrepancy between the desired and realized social relationships of individuals. In this light, the findings make a lot of sense: loneliness is associated with poor health, living alone or without a spouse–partner, and having fewer close family and friends. Naturally, this tends to affect older people more, as their health (or the health of their spouse or friends can decline) — and this has been observed to increase loneliness in older adults.
Overall, the team found that loneliness decreases between the ages 50 and 74, but increases after 75.
However, they looked at it year-per-year, researchers found nothing to show that loneliness has gotten substantially higher in recent years. If anything, it’s gotten a bit lower.
“We found no evidence that older adults have become any lonelier than those of a similar age were a decade before,” said Louise C. Hawkley, PhD, of NORC at the University of Chicago, lead author of one of the studies. “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.”
Even after 75, people who were able to remain in good health and maintain social relationships were less likely to report being lonely. So the results suggest that if we pay attention to social factors and health, this can be mitigated, and loneliness isn’t a mandatory sentence in older life.
However, loneliness is a subjective perception and does not perfectly correspond with objective situations — and there are important facets that this study does deal with.
The data came from the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam, a long-term study of the social, physical, cognitive and emotional functioning of older adults. A total of 4,880 people, born between 1908 and 1957, participated. So there are cultural aspects which might be very different in other parts of the world. The Dutch social system is certainly not representative of the entire world, and it’s too soon to translate these findngs to a larger part of the population.
There was another surprising parameter that crept into the loneliness equation: education. Older adults born in later generations were actually less lonely, because they were better educated, felt more in control throughout their lives, and were more likely to manage their life better, according to Bianca Suanet, PhD, of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and lead author of the study.
“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 set goals, such as going to the gym, were less lonely,” said Suanet. “Additionally, as is well-known in loneliness research, participants who had a significant other and/or larger and more diverse networks were also less lonely.”
To make matters even better, modern communication technology can work to reduce loneliness by helping people stay in touch with their loved ones despite the distance.
“Video chatting platforms and the Internet may help preserve their social relationships,” concluded Hawkley. “These tools can help older adults stay mobile and engaged in their communities.”
The study has been published in the journal Psychology and Aging.