Loneliness is often, and rightly, perceived as a problem that can be particularly associated with those in later life.  Certainly, here at the Campaign, this is the issue that we are grappling with.  However, we are acutely aware that much less attention has been paid to how loneliness affects other age groups; a recent Big Lunch survey found that two-thirds of adults have experienced loneliness at some point.

In this blog, we take a look at what the statistics say about loneliness across the life course, and take a more in depth look at how and why loneliness affects a range of groups within society.  However please bear in mind that we are only looking at a handful of examples here and we know that loneliness can affect anyone, at any time of life.

Research shows that loneliness in the UK peaks at two points in our lives; those aged 25 years and under and those aged over 65 years tend to experience the highest levels of loneliness.

Interestingly, for people in mid and later life, it is the quality of social engagement and relationships that protects against loneliness, while for younger adults it is the quantity of social engagement.  What this shows is that people experience loneliness differently at different stages of life and that a range of different factors can help protect us against feeling lonely.

Loneliness in the under 25s

According to Get Connected, a helpline for people under 25, we are “seeing a rise in loneliness among young people”.  The charity speaks to over 3500 young people each year experiencing emotional and mental distress.

The reasons for this increase could be the “relentlessly challenging social, study and work environment that is high stress and fast paced” or even how the media and the internet present “unattainable visions” of what a ‘perfect life’ should involve.”  Once this is combined with the “fundamental change in relationships and communication” brought about by the rise of the internet, it is perhaps not so hard to understand why so many young people are feeling lonely.  There is a prestige attached to having huge numbers of online ‘friends’, but this doesn’t necessarily lead to feeling truly connected in the real world.

Psychologists also believe that teenagers are especially vulnerable to loneliness because their brain is still developing and teenagers can misread other people’s emotions – teenagers may also feel isolated as they struggle to establish their own identities.  The fear of being excluded is also particularly heightened amongst children and teenagers.

Interestingly, poor physical health is associated with loneliness in young adult and midlife, but actually less so in later life.

Loneliness in Middle Age

Middle age can be a time when potential triggers of loneliness, such as early retirement, children leaving home, relationship breakdown and even bereavement can begin to accumulate.  25% of women aged forty-five to fifty-four suffer from a common mental health disorder such as depression and anxiety, which in turn can lead to loneliness.

A snapshot survey by the Samaritans in 2013 revealed that a quarter of contacts from men were about loneliness or isolation.  The charity highlighted the likelihood of social disconnection among men in mid-life, particularly if unemployed and without a partner.  It points out that men in mid-life can often be quite dependent on female partners for emotional support; often having fewer ‘peer’ relationships than women, finding it harder to talk about emotional issues with peers or to make new friendships, so any breakdown in relationships can be especially difficult.

Loneliness and Cancer

Illness can be a time of terrible loneliness.  Macmillan Cancer Support conducted research showing that overall more than one in five (22%) cancer patients experience loneliness following diagnosis. Cancer can be a very isolating experience and sufferers can struggle to open up about their experiences, even if they do have people around them.  Research shows that two in five of those aged over 55 will keep their diagnosis a secret from friends and family.   Children and teenager sufferers can also become very isolated, if they have to drop out of education, whilst young adults are unable to start work or a family.  Even after successful treatment, around one in four will face disability or poor physical or mental health.

Loneliness has also been shown to actually put the recovery of a patient at risk, with those that are lonely being three times more likely to struggle to follow their treatment plan than those who aren’t lonely, according to research by Macmillan Cancer Support.  Lonely patients are more likely to miss appointments, not take their medicine properly, are unable to pick up prescriptions or even refuse certain types of treatment or refuse treatment altogether.

Want to learn more?

In this blog we have addressed just a small number of groups who might experience loneliness, looking at some of the reasons that this is likely to occur.  This is no way meant to be an exhaustive list; loneliness is experienced by almost everyone at some point in their life for many varied reasons.    If you would like to read more about how loneliness is experienced by a range of groups including ethnic minorities, LGBT people and people in care homes, take a look at our publication, Alone in the Crowd.