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Loneliness: A Rising Epidemic in Modern Life?

Special Reports

by Dr Rebecca Harris - University of Bolton


The rising levels of loneliness in modern society have caught the public eye and many media articles have been written about this, but is loneliness really on the
increase, who does it effect and what causes it?

Certainly loneliness is on the increase in modern society and is at the highest levels in elderly populations and in the Generation Y. People are reporting higher levels of loneliness and suggest that they find it harder to make friends than 10 years ago. Interestingly when large scale population surveys are carried out, against public perception, the loneliness epidemic is greatest in 18-35 year olds. A survey carried out in 2010 by the Mental Health Foundation found that that 18-35 year olds were more likely to feel lonely, had anxiety about being alone and felt depressed about being lonely than over 55s. In another survey in April this year by the Big Lunch loneliness was also greatest in 18- 35 year olds.

Being with others and feeling that we are connected to other people is good for us. Positive relationships with others are like essential vitamins or minerals for us, promoting our physical and mental health. People with good quality social connections are healthier and have increased life expectancy. We experience less stress in difficult or challenging situations when we have someone present with us and even the knowledge that we have a good network of social support reduces the stress we experience when others cannot be present. Research shows that loneliness is an adaptive mechanism that motivates us to seek out others
when our social connections are lacking. As such it would be very normal to experience high levels of loneliness when starting university, moving to a new area, or any change in our social situation.

But it is when loneliness persists for a number of years that it is linked to poor physical and mental health. Loneliness has been shown to have a large impact on our physical health: it is associated with increased risks of cardiovascular disease, poor recovery after surgery, decreased immune system functioning, and increased visits to the doctors. In fact, experiencing prolonged loneliness has a higher mortality risk than smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese.

So why are we getting lonelier? Although there has not been a great deal of empirical research into the reasons for the rise in loneliness a number of factors have been suggested.

A change in modern lifestyle is an important factor: we live further away from where we work and typically move away from family and friends for work commitments, people work longer hours and find it harder to fit in time for social activities.

But why is loneliness so high in the Generation Y and baby boomers? It is likely that different factors influence the prevalence of loneliness at different ages and life stages. The loneliness experienced by these two groups is different, in younger populations people can sometimes be surrounded by others but yet still feel very lonely whereas in elderly populations loneliness is often the result of social isolation and reduced mobility. Although loneliness is experienced in the same way, each group is a very different population in relation to the reasons for loneliness.

For young adults the cause of loneliness is often reported to be the increased use of social media in modern life. This is the result of many studies which find that there is an association between social media use and loneliness. However, there are only a few studies that have examined this relationship over time and these studies show a different picture. Although use of the internet does lead to increases in loneliness, in some circumstances using social media actually reduces loneliness. It is the way that people make use of the internet that is the result of increasing loneliness. When social media is used as a way to make new friends, enhance existing relationships or maintain long distance ones it can reduce loneliness. But when social media is used in a way that replaces face-to-face communication it increases loneliness. In fact researchers are starting to demonstrate that relationships formed on-line that become off-line friendships or romantic relationships have increased levels of liking and are often longer lasting and more satisfying.

Researchers have also shown that there is an anxiety epidemic in the generation Y. Fear and anxiety is on the increase in under 30s with many young adults
finding this has a disabling impact on their daily life. One of the causes of loneliness in this population may be a result of this increase in generalised anxiety resulting in an anxiety about being alone. Many people believe this is a result of the increase in social media that makes it more evident to people that they may be ever more connected to others but only superficially, thus making them feel lonelier.

John Cacioppo argues in his 2009 book titled “Loneliness: Human Nature and the need for Social Connection” that when someone is lonely they often respond in social interactions with a sensitivity to picking up negative and rejecting information which leads to the lonely person withdrawing from social situations, and if prolonged, will result in anxiety about forming friendships. As typically the Generation Y is surrounded by people and streams of social information through social media but still feel lonely, it is important then that strategies that are suggested to reduce loneliness for this group, focus not only on providing new opportunities for making friends (e.g. joining an interest club or volunteering) but also work on challenging the negative mind frame about social interaction and work on reducing anxiety.

Loneliness in an elderly population, in comparison, is much more linked to social isolation. Older people often experience loneliness as a result of losing loved ones and a reduced mobility making it difficult to stay in contact with others. Strategies that have attempted to reduce loneliness that support elderly to reconnect with others or provide opportunities for them to stay in contact with loved ones (i.e. through the use of social media) have been successful.

Loneliness is known to have a very specific health implication on an elderly population in that it increases normative age-related declines. In addition to the loneliness epidemic in baby boomers, a dementia epidemic has also been noted in this group. Given the link between loneliness and cognitive decline in older cohorts, it is very likely that amongst other risk factors, the rising levels of loneliness in older populations is linked to this “dementia time bomb”, in that, loneliness will speed up the development of dementia.

What is important here is that the two populations are not mutually exclusive: the burdens on the generation Y make it difficult for them to visit older family members and offer this social connection that elderly people would have had in the past. A survey by Alone has linked these two issues with loneliness being on the increase in over 65s in Ireland being linked to the increase in migration of younger adults.

Although, individual strategies have been suggested that may help reduce loneliness in lonely people. Strategies that target awareness and understanding of loneliness and encourage us to change the way communities operate, are likely to have the greatest impact in reducing loneliness in our society. We should make time for each other and ensure that we have “social time” in our busy schedules and make time to communicate with or visit those in our communities and direct family networks that are the most socially isolated.
                                                                                                                                                                                  Dr Rebecca Harris
                                                                                                                                                                                  University of Bolton
                                                                                                                                                                                  June 2015

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