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Experience of loneliness may differ by age, study suggests

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

Scientists say their findings mean there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to combating loneliness.

This is because factors associated with it, such as contact with friends and family, perceived health or employment, may differ across the phases of the adult life span.

Thanee Franssen, the corresponding author, said: “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.

“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 in the Netherlands from September to December 2016.

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

The study published in the open access journal BMC Public Health, found that overall, 10,309 (44.3%) individuals reported experiencing loneliness.

Among young adults, 2,042 (39.7%) people reported feelings of loneliness, compared to 3,108 (43.3%) early-middle aged adults, and 5,159 late middle-aged adults (48.2%).

The researchers found a number of common factors associated with loneliness across all of the ages.

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.

Young adults showed the strongest association between contact frequency 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.

Thanee Franssen said: “The identification of the factors associated with loneliness is necessary to be able to develop and target appropriate interventions.

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