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Loneliness Haunts Us in 3 Life Eras, Study Finds

woman walking down road alone

Dec. 20, 2018 -- Contrary to stereotype, loneliness doesn't just affect older adults, and it is more common than believed, according to a new study.

As many as 76% of the 340 people in the study seemed to have moderate to severe loneliness, says senior author Dilip Jeste, MD, a distinguished professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the University of California San Diego. The participants were ages 27 to 101.

Jeste also found predictable increases in loneliness at certain age ranges, with it spiking in the late 20s, mid-50s, and late 80s.

One bright spot: Wisdom, which scientists say they can measure, was a strong buffer against loneliness.

Inspiration for the Study

Jeste says he was inspired to do the study as he reflected on research and what has been called the loneliness epidemic. Earlier this year, a study by health insurer Cigna found that nearly half of the 20,000 people surveyed online reported feeling alone, isolated, or left out at least some of the time. Experts conducting that study said loneliness rivals obesity and smoking 15 cigarettes a day in terms of the health risk.

People have different definitions of loneliness. According to Jeste, it is not the same as being alone. "It's a subjective feeling. I can't tell you if you are lonely or not."

"Let's say I have 10 friends," he says. "I may still feel lonely. I may need 20 [not to feel lonely].'' But someone else may have one friend and feel that is enough, he says.

Study Details

Jeste used three well-known and accepted scales to assess loneliness. Participants answered how often they felt left out or ''in tune'' with others. When the most comprehensive scale was used, those reporting moderate or severe loneliness reached 76%. The researchers also assessed the participants' physical and mental health. Their degree of wisdom was evaluated using another standard scale developed by the UC San Diego researchers.

"Wisdom is a personality trait with several components," Jeste says. These include empathy, compassion, the ability to self-reflect, and the ability to make decisions and to accept a diversity of opinions.

People who were lonelier were less optimistic, and had lower resilience and lower mental well-being.

Researchers can't say exactly why, but Jeste says the behaviors that make one “wise” may counter or prevent serious loneliness.

So, can we learn to be wiser?

"Wisdom is modifiable," he says. Most adults learned some wisdom as a child -- for instance when parents or other caregivers taught you to share, or not throw a tantrum -- but it's not too late, he says.

"We can [still] learn from friends, colleagues, family," he says. For instance, a co-worker might point out your indecision is hampering your effectiveness.

Expert Opinion

The 76% finding is surprising, says David Reuben, MD, director of geriatrics at UCLA Health. But, he says, that combines moderate and severe levels. When looked at separately, severe loneliness was reported by 22% of respondents,

While interesting, the results should be duplicated in a larger study, he says.

The age brackets where loneliness spikes make sense, he says. In their late 20s, people are often trying to find their way, personally and professionally. "In the 50s, there is what they used to call midlife crisis," Reuben says. Children may be leaving home, or marriages may get into trouble.

"In the late 80s, people are losing friends," he says. "I have a number of patients who have outlived all their friends."

The link with wisdom is interesting, he says, but at this point, it is a stretch to say you can decrease loneliness by increasing wisdom.

"Wisdom is something that accrues over time," Reuben says, such as with travel, having different experiences, and learning from them. He does suggest forming relationships with people at all age levels -- finding people you can turn to or feel like you have a connection with.

What Else May Help? Talking About It

Talking about being lonely is not so easy, says Patrick Palmer, 47, an Atlanta software project manager. But it may help. His life was rolling along. He and his husband were working, active adults. Patrick cycled and was a fan of rigorous CrossFit workouts.

Then, in February, Patrick fell down a flight of stairs, landing on his back. "I fractured one vertebra and slipped two others," he says. He also got a sobering, surprising diagnosis: osteoporosis. In April, he had spinal fusion surgery but says he is still in pain. He is considering a spinal implant.

He is off work, by himself during the workday, and housebound. After an honest talk with his therapist about how lonely he felt, he made a bold move: He talked about it on Facebook. He wrote about the surgery, his pain, and how he was lonely.

''There was a wonderful, supportive response," Patrick says. It was a turning point.

"Instead of wallowing in my loneliness, I am trying to step outside," he says. He knows people may think he's fine, with the surgery behind him, and not realize how isolated he feels.

He is realistic about the loneliness. "I don’t know if it will completely go away until I am back to some sort of regular activity,'' he says. Meanwhile, his advice to others who feel lonely? "Be honest and authentic with people, and share your story."

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

Sources

Dilip Jeste, MD, senior associate dean for healthy aging and distinguished professor of psychiatry and neurosciences, University of California San Diego.

David Reuben, MD, director of geriatrics, UCLA Health, and Archstone Foundation professor of geriatrics, David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA.

Patrick Palmer, Atlanta.

International Psychogeriatrics: “High prevalence and adverse health effects of loneliness in community-dwelling adults across the lifespan: role of wisdom as a protective factor.”

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