Study: Why Older People Feel So Lonely

by Staff Writer
November 22, 2022 at 9:18 AM UTC

Older people feel lonely because they don't feel listened to or useful, a new study finds.

Clinical Relevance: Assess and address feelings of loneliness in older patients

  • Loneliness stems from a fundamental disconnect between expectations versus reality in relationships
  • People can feel lonely despite spending little time alone
  • Older patients want people to listen to them and they want to make meaningful contributions

Loneliness in old age is a complex emotion driven by a mismatch of expectations and reality, new Perspectives on Psychological Science research finds.

“Loneliness results from a discrepancy between expected and actual social relationships,” says first study author and King’s College London graduate student Samia Akhter-Khan in a press release about the project, which was conducted in conjunction with Duke University scientists. 

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“The problem that we identified in current research was that we haven’t really thought about: What do people expect from their relationships? We work with this definition of expectations, but we don’t really identify what those expectations are and how they change across cultures or over the lifespan,” she said.

Loneliness is More Than Being Alone

Loneliness may seem as straightforward as spending too much time by yourself so you feel feel isolated and cut off. But Akhter-Khan said her opinion changed after spending a year in Myanmar studying aging. The data she collected suggested that people can still feel very lonely despite not spending much time alone. 

“People are so connected and live in a very close-knit society. People have big families; they’re often around each other. Why would people feel lonely?” she said. “It actually turns out to be different. People can still feel lonely, even if they don’t spend much time alone.”

The team’s theory, called the Social Relationship Expectations Framework, proposes that older people may have certain relationship expectations that have gone overlooked. The study suggested that, in general, older people are looking for two things out of their social connections: they want to be listened to and they want to make a contribution. 

Akhter-Khan said she believes that most modern efforts to reduce loneliness have failed to take these factors into account. Having others to take an interest in their experiences, learn from their mistakes, and appreciate what they’ve been through would go a long way towards reducing the epidemic of loneliness in an aging population, she said. So would finding meaningful ways for older folks to give back to the community and pass along their knowledge and traditions.

Loneliness at Any Age

Older people are often overlooked in the research on loneliness. Part of the reason for the oversight may be that often the labor and contributions of older people are unaccounted for in typical economic indices, said Akhter-Khan. Ageism contributes as well, she added. 

But feeling lonely is not unique to seniors. It’s an emotional state that anyone at any age can find themself in given the right circumstances. The COVID pandemic left so many people feeling isolated that Britain and Japan each created a Minister of Loneliness to address the problem.

“If you look at the distribution of loneliness across the lifespan, there are two peaks, and one is in younger adulthood, and one is in old age,” Akhter-Khan pointed out. By better understanding the factors that drive loneliness, we might be better able to address them, she added. 

Beyond having a psychological impact, persistent loneliness has been linked to a greater risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and stroke. Some researchers suggest it carries a medical risk comparable to, or greater than, smoking and obesity.

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