Loneliness is a feeling of isolation or disconnection from others, and it can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or social status. However, some individuals are more susceptible to loneliness than others due to various factors. In this article, we will explore who is at risk for loneliness and what can be done to prevent it.
One of the most vulnerable groups to loneliness is older adults. As people age, they may experience a loss of friends and loved ones, retirement from work, and a decline in mobility and health. These changes can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. According to a study by the National Institute on Aging, more than one-third of older adults in the United States report feeling lonely. To combat loneliness, older adults can engage in social activities, volunteer, or join social clubs.
Individuals with Chronic Illness
People with chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, or heart disease are also at risk for loneliness. These individuals may have limited mobility or be unable to participate in activities they once enjoyed, leading to a lack of social connections. Moreover, the psychological burden of living with a chronic illness can also contribute to feelings of loneliness. To combat loneliness, individuals with chronic illnesses can join support groups, engage in online communities, or seek counseling.
Individuals with Mental Health Disorders
People with mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia are also at a higher risk of loneliness. These individuals may experience social isolation due to stigma, a lack of understanding from others, or difficulty forming and maintaining relationships. To combat loneliness, individuals with mental health disorders can seek treatment, join support groups, and engage in activities that promote socialization.
Single individuals may also be at risk for loneliness, especially if they are not actively seeking or maintaining social connections. These individuals may not have a partner or family to rely on for social support, leading to feelings of isolation. To combat loneliness, single individuals can join social groups, attend events, and connect with others through online platforms.
In conclusion, loneliness can affect anyone, but some individuals are more susceptible to it due to various factors. Older adults, individuals with chronic illnesses, mental health disorders, and single individuals are some of the most vulnerable groups to loneliness. However, there are ways to combat loneliness, including engaging in social activities, joining support groups, and seeking treatment when necessary. By understanding who is at risk for loneliness and taking steps to prevent it, we can promote social connection and well-being for all individuals.
Who’s at Risk for Loneliness — and Why?
Loneliness tends to be more prevalent in certain groups, including younger people, older people, and those who have relocated to a new country.
By Carmen Chai
Medically Reviewed by Seth Gillihan, PhD
lone shadow figure rooftop wall
Adolescents and teens may be surrounded by their peers all day long, but if they’re not really connecting with them, they may still feel lonely.
The face of loneliness may be that of a new mother exhausted from tending to her newborn baby, a high school student struggling to fit in, or an elderly man living in an apartment all alone. No age group or demographic is immune to this emotion.
Data suggest loneliness affects a lot of people in the United States: 22 percent of Americans said they often or always felt lonely, left out, isolated from others, or lacked companionship, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report published in April 2018. In a 2020 Cigna survey of more than 10,400 American adults (data were collected in 2019), 61 percent reported being lonely.
Loneliness is an emotion we’ll all experience, regardless of age, gender, sexuality, health, and income, says Adam Borland, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who treats anxiety and mood-related issues at the Cleveland Clinic.
“Loneliness can be very painful, but people need to know it’s incredibly common. I tell my patients all the time that it’s something very understandable, and they’re not alone in their feelings,” Dr. Borland says.
Widespread social isolation related to the COVID-19 pandemic taught us lessons about loneliness and how severely it can affect our health and well-being.
“We had high rates of loneliness in the country to start, but the pandemic both increased the number of people who are lonely and deepened people’s loneliness,” says Richard Weissbourd, PhD, the faculty director of human development and psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Boston.
His research estimated that 36 percent of Americans felt “serious loneliness” in 2020, during the peak of the pandemic and related lockdowns and quarantining.
But some segments of the population are more at risk for loneliness than others. Here’s a closer look.
- Adolescents and Young Adults
When you think of people grappling with loneliness, young people may not be the first group to come to mind. They’re too busy texting their friends, throwing parties, or shopping at the mall, right?
Not everyone is. A growing body of research suggests this group of Americans may be the loneliest. Nearly 50 percent of Gen Z and 48 percent of millennials reported feeling lonely, according to estimates published in Cigna’s 2020 report.
And 27 percent of millennials said they have no close friendships, according to a 2019 survey from the market research and data analytics firm YouGovAmerica.
In adolescence, people face pivotal crossroads, Dr. Weissbourd explains. “They’re separated from their parents but haven’t yet started a family of their own; they [may] no longer have that sense of community; and they’re making some of the most important decisions of their lives around their careers and love. This is when they really need other people to support them.”
So even if they’re surrounded by people, if they’re not surrounded by people they feel can support them through these major life changes and decisions, they’re going to experience loneliness, says Weissbourd.
Remember, the definition of loneliness is the emotional distress we feel when our inherent needs for intimacy and companionship are not met, according to the American Psychological Association. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re alone — you could be in a crowded room of classmates and still feel loneliness because you aren’t connecting with the people around you.
Research backs this up. When looking at adolescents and young adults, things like instability of social networks, changes in school, identity exploration, and physical changes all contributed to people feeling lonelier at these ages, according to a review published in February 2021.
- Older Adults
More than one in four adults over 60 years old are experiencing some degree of loneliness, according to a meta-analysis published in PLoS One in July 2021.
AARP has reported that 17 percent of Americans 65 and older are isolated, and 26 percent of elderly Americans are at an increased risk of early death because of their subjective feelings of loneliness.
At this age, people’s children move out of the house to relocate or start their own families, people may lose touch with old coworkers, and you and your longtime friends may be dealing with serious health issues.
Seniors may be dealing with a loss of independence as they lose their autonomy, or have trouble with memory, Borland says. This could lead to feeling disconnected from the world, like they’re a “bother” to the people around them.
In a typical week, 2.6 million people age 65 or older in the United Kingdom speak to three or fewer people they know; and more than 225,000 people reported often going a week without any interaction with others, according to a report published in 2019 by Age UK, a London-based charity.
Data from the organization collected in 2014 found that 49 percent of seniors said television is their main source of company.
- Immigrant Populations
People who have relocated to a different country may be coping with language barriers, financial struggles, and trying to adapt to a new culture, all factors that can contribute to feeling isolated, according to a 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM).
They may be faced with feelings of being misunderstood, homesickness, and rejection in their new surroundings — a combination that can make it that much harder to establish meaningful relationships, according to a 2019 report from the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, a UK-based nonprofit that focuses on well-being research and policy.
Data collected and published in July 2021 by Statistics Canada, a federally run agency that conducts the Canadian census and other research, found that both recent and long-term immigrants in Canada reported significantly more loneliness than Canadian-born individuals.
- Members of the LGBTQ+ Community
LGBTQ+ groups tend to report feelings of loneliness more often than others because they may grapple with concealing their sexuality, rejection from family or friends, harassment, bullying, discrimination, and microaggressions from society, according to a report from the Campaign to End Loneliness, a UK-based network dedicated to tackling loneliness across all demographics through community outreach, research, and influencing policy.
People with minority sexual and gender identities, for instance, tend to report grappling with feelings of loneliness more than their heterosexual and cisgender peers, according to the aforementioned NASEM report.
In an AARP report published in 2018, survey participants who identified as LGBTQ faced loneliness more (49 percent) than their non-LGBTQ counterparts (35 percent).
This loneliness can stem from a variety of factors, such as discrimination at work or school, disconnection from family, or problems finding peers to connect with, according to LGBT Hero, a UK-based national nonprofit.
There may be feelings of: “Does anyone understand what I’m going through?” says Borland. Not knowing who you can open up to and who you can trust can be very isolating if that’s the situation you’re facing, he adds.
- Moms With Young Children
In Weissbourd’s research, 51 percent of mothers with young children reported serious loneliness, and 47 percent of mothers with young kids reporting an increase in their loneliness since the pandemic.
Mothers are “depleted” after tending to their families all day, and it’s not surprising that they need adult companionship or affirmation in their lives, Weissbourd says.
- People Struggling Financially
Financial issues, from losing a job to living from paycheck to paycheck, can be a catalyst for loneliness, according to the previously mentioned 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation report. It found that 47 percent of Americans who felt lonely faced a downgrade in their financial status, versus 22 percent among those who were not lonely, while 27 percent got laid off or fired in the last two years compared with 16 percent of the not lonely.
A low income ($25,000 or less per year) was a marker for chronic loneliness, according to another 2018 AARP report. In this case, researchers found that one in two people around this salary bracket are likely to be lonely.
People in this group could be working two or three jobs, or juggling overnight shifts, with less of a daily routine, making it tricky to spend time with family and friends. If debt is on their mind, people may be ashamed to open up about their financial troubles, and thus not get the support they need to cope with the really big stressors they are facing, Borland says.
- People With Mental and Physical Health Ailments
The Kaiser Family Foundation also found that 40 percent of Americans who reported feeling serious loneliness had a debilitating disability or chronic disease, while 47 percent were diagnosed with a serious mental health condition, compared with about 15 percent for physical or mental health conditions among those who were not lonely.
People reporting loneliness were two times more likely to report having a disability or ailment that stopped them from taking part in activities with their peers or in the community.
Borland, who helps adults with a wide range of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, says he sees this dynamic happening in his patients when a psychological condition gets in the way of socializing. His patients could be anxious or have certain phobias about getting involved in activities at work, school or with friends out of fear of feeling misunderstood or not accepted.