A large body of research on loneliness focuses upon older adults only. A recent study by Luhmann and Hawkley broadens the knowledge gap by using data from a large nationally representative German study to describe and explain age differences in loneliness across the entire adult life span, from late adolescence to oldest old age. In order to explain patterns of loneliness, the following predictors are used: socioeconomic status, work status, living arrangements, relationship status, health and social engagement.

What the research found

The study found that levels of loneliness amongst the adult population follow an unevenly distributed pattern. Key findings show that:

Young adults have elevated levels of loneliness

Work status was a common predictor of increased levels of loneliness amongst young adults. Young adults who worked full time did not differ much to young adults who did not work at all in relation to their loneliness levels. For those who do not yet work at all, this poses little opportunity to create social contacts and networks. On the other hand, for those who work full time, the effects can also be detrimental for them. For instance, they may find it difficult building large, strong social networks because they have less flexibility in their daily lives than their peers who may work in part time jobs and attend higher education institutions.

Middle age represents the lowest risk of loneliness

Although middle age was found to be the time where loneliness levels are at their lowest, there is a clear peak at around age 35. Income and relationship status were the most closely related predictive factors of loneliness amongst this age group. This could be explained by mid-adulthood being the typical period for making, investing and saving money, which often become important life goals. In terms of relationship status, middle aged adults who were single had increased level of loneliness – which could also be explained by the societal expected that people will “settle down”.

Levels of loneliness are highest amongst the oldest old (aged 80 and over)

The finding that the highest levels of loneliness is amongst the oldest old is consistent with previous research and common depictions of older adults spending their days in solitude. The study found the most common associations with loneliness in later life being low income, higher prevalence of functional limitations, and a higher proportion of singles – which is normally the result of widowhood.

Education attainment

Higher levels of educational attainment was a universal factor associated with decreased levels of loneliness amongst all age groups.Amongst all adults, having an increased number of educational qualifications was related to lower levels in loneliness, even when controlling for other common predictors of loneliness, such as relationship status, physical functioning and social engagement.

Overall, explanations for age-related levels in loneliness are varied, and there is no single one reason why loneliness is experienced amongst different groups, at different stages of the life course.

Implications for further research

More research needs to be undertaken devoted to identifying age-specific risk factors of loneliness in young and middle aged adults to ensure these groups are not neglected, as a result of common stereotypes which confine the experience of loneliness to older adults only. Also, to further explain differences in age-related levels of loneliness, more in detail research should be undertaken with smaller age groups – by segmenting them, rather than grouping them as a whole.

Luhmann, M. and Hawkley, L. 2016. Age Differences in Loneliness: From Late Adolescence to Oldest Old Age. Development Psychology. DOI: 10.1037/dev0000117.