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AUTHOR: Alexandra Thompson, PGR Student, Department of Psychology

This week (13th-17th June 2022) sees the 6th Loneliness Awareness Week hosted by the Marmalade Trust. This is one of many such campaigns in recent years with the aim of raising awareness and reducing the stigma associated with talking about feeling lonely. Intiatives like the UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness and the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission aim to share research evidence about loneliness and to demonstrate the need for national leadership and guidance to address this issue. This has resulted in the appointment of the very first Ministers for Loneliness and the creation of a cross-governmental Tackling Loneliness Strategy and team.

The problem of loneliness

This increased focus is not without good reason. Experiencing loneliness, also referred to as perceived social isolation, can potentially lead to increased risk of developing health problems. Such issues include cardiovascular disease and stroke (1), dementia and cognitive decline (2), depression and anxiety (3) and chronic health conditions such as diabetes (4). Additionally, chronic loneliness and social isolation carries the same level of health risk as obesity and smoking (5).

Traditionally, older adults are viewed as those in society that are most likely to experience loneliness. Although recent evidence suggests that younger people are equally or more likely to report loneliness (6), loneliness in older adults is still a concern in this age group. In 2018 around 1 million UK residents aged over 50 reported that they were chronically lonely, and this number is expected to increase to more than 2 million by 2025. We also have an ageing population in the UK and worldwide, meaning that the effects of loneliness are likely to be experienced by an increasing number of older adults in the near future. Loneliness therefore poses a significant public health risk and has the potential to place increased strain on health and social care services.

This risk has been compounded by the recent COVID 19 pandemic. Social distancing and successive lockdown measures meant that for many older adults their already limited social contact was further reduced. This was clearly a concern for those already experiencing loneliness, but also meant that a new wave of older adults were at risk of becoming lonely, particularly those in residential care. Since these measures have been reversed the potential for more social contact has increased and the risk has hopefully reduced. However, given that negative effects may have already occurred, it’s important that we continue to focus on re-establishing our social connections and those of older adults to minimise this impact.

As you might expect, romantic social connections, such as being in a relationship or being married, offer some protection against loneliness (7). But what about other types of social links? One social connection which appears to be particularly important to older adults are friendships. Friendships seem to be more beneficial in preventing loneliness than family relationships (8). This may not be that surprising as family relationships have the potential to be based more on obligation than friendships and also at times can be fraught with conflict. It has been shown that (9) increasing the number of friends you have generally reduces loneliness (9). However, recent evidence from our department has shown that simply making more friends might not be the answer (10).

What is the magic number?

We surveyed hundreds of older adults about their levels of loneliness and friendships. Our study (10) demonstrated that although having more friends may indeed stave of loneliness, for older adults, adding more close friendships beyond four friends has no further effect in reducing loneliness. If four is the optimal number, then this means that older adults and interventions aimed at reducing loneliness in this age group can focus on establishing and maintaining this relatively small number of close connections. Many individuals have a support group of around five members (11), so it may be possible that some older adults already have the optimal number of close friendships. For those, individuals, focus is best placed on improving the quality within these relationships or addressing other aspects linked to loneliness such as mobility and functional status (12).

About the Author

Alexandra Thompson is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology, working within the Evolution and Social Interaction Research Group and supervised by Professor Thomas Pollet. You can read more about the work of the research group over in this section of the blog

References

  1. Valtorta, N. K., Kanaan, M., Gilbody, S., & Hanratty, B. (2018). Loneliness, social isolation and risk of cardiovascular disease in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 25(13), 1387–1396. https://doi.org/10.1177/2047487318792696
  2. Wilson, R. S., Krueger, K. R., Arnold, S. E., Schneider, J. A., Kelly, J. F., Barnes, L. L., … Bennett, D. A. (2007). Loneliness and risk of Alzheimer disease. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64(2), 234–240. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpsyc.64.2.234
  3. Beutel, M. E., Klein, E. M., Brähler, E., Reiner, I., Jünger, C., Michal, M., … Tibubos, A. N. (2017). Loneliness in the general population: Prevalence, determinants and relations to mental health. BMC Psychiatry, 17(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-017-1262-x
  4. Brinkhues, S., Dukers-Muijrers, N. H. T. M., Hoebe, C. J. P. A., Van Der Kallen, C. J. H., Dagnelie, P. C., Koster, A., … Schram, M. T. (2017). Socially isolated individuals are more prone to have newly diagnosed and prevalent type 2 diabetes mellitus – The Maastricht study – The M. BMC Public Health, 17(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-017-4948-6
  5. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614568352
  6. Barreto, M., Victor, C., Hammond, C., Eccles, A., Richins, M. T., & Qualter, P. (2020). Loneliness around the world: Age, gender, and cultural differences in loneliness. Personality and Individual Differences, (January), 110066. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110066
  7. Victor, C. R., & Yang, K. (2012). The Prevalence of Loneliness Among Adults : A Case Study of the United Kingdom The Prevalence of Loneliness Among Adults : A Case Study of the United Kingdom. The Journal of Psychology, 146(1–2), 85–104. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2011.613875
  8. Lee, G. R., & Ishii-Kuntz, M. (1987). Social Interaction, Loneliness, and Emotional Well-Being among the Elderly. Research on Aging, 9(4), 459–482. https://doi.org/10.1177/0164027587094001
  9. Shiovitz-Ezra, S., & Leitsch, S. A. (2010). The role of social relationships in predicting loneliness: The national social life, health, and aging project. Social Work Research, 34(3), 157–167. https://doi.org/10.1093/swr/34.3.157
  10. Thompson, A., & Pollet, T. (In Press). Friendships, loneliness and psychological well-being in older adults: A limit to the benefit of the number of friends. Ageing & Society.
  11. 11. Dunbar, R. I. M., & Spoors, M. (1995). Social networks, support cliques, and kinship. Human Nature, 6(3), 273–290. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02734142
  12. Theeke, L. A. (2009). Predictors of Loneliness in U.S. Adults Over Age Sixty-Five. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 23(5), 387–396. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apnu.2008.11.00

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