Loneliness is on the rise in the U.S., and no one is immune. Research published earlier this year found that people 18 to 22 years old were more likely than any other U.S. population to be lonely. But new data suggests that older adults are also lonely in high numbers.
More than a third of adults over 45 are lonely, according to a new report from the AARP Foundation. While that percentage (35%) remains unchanged from a 2010 version of the survey, the over-45 population has increased substantially during those eight years — meaning about 5 million more adults, almost 48 million in total, can now be considered lonely.
In the new research, more than 3,000 adults answered questions on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a 20-item survey designed to measure social connection and loneliness. They also answered questions about their health, lifestyles, socioeconomic profiles, social networks and more.
The report found that people who were physically isolated and who had small social networks were most likely to be lonely. Meanwhile, those who reported large and diverse social groups; frequent contact with friends, neighbors and family members; involvement in community and religious groups; marriage; and regular sexual activity were less likely to be lonely.
Good mental and physical health were also associated with lower levels of loneliness — which isn’t surprising, since loneliness and social isolation are linked to a range of health issues, including substance use and heart problems. Adults with higher levels of education and income, two factors consistently linked to better health, were also less likely to be lonely, the report found.
Consistent with past research, the report also found that loneliness levels decreased with age. Forty-six percent of adults ages 45 to 49 were classified as lonely, compared to just 24% of those older than 70. This trend could reflect the well-established “dip in happiness” that tends to occur around middle-age, followed by better quality of life in the later years, the report says. It’s also possible that, because loneliness is associated with a number of health problems, people who report high levels of loneliness are less likely to live into older age.