How does it feel to be fifty

When do we feel lonely?

Hidden suffering: More people suffer from loneliness than previously thought - and their number is increasing. According to a US study, the proportion of lonely people has doubled in the past 50 years. It is not only the elderly or the sick who are particularly affected. The researchers found that there is also a high phase of loneliness in the late 20s and mid-50s. Also interesting: Social isolation is by no means always the main trigger.

Anyone who feels lonely does not only suffer psychologically. Because the feeling of social isolation also has specific physical effects and can even make you sick. Studies show that lonely people sleep worse, feel more stress and perceive pain and symptoms as worse. In addition, loneliness inhibits the immune system, so that those affected get sick more easily and possibly even age faster.

Three quarters feel lonely

But how many people are affected by loneliness? And what determines who feels lonely? This is what Ellen Lee from the University of California at San Diego and her team investigated in a study with 340 participants between the ages of 27 and 101. Using a standardized psychological test, they recorded the degree of loneliness of their subjects and also their living conditions.

The surprising result: three quarters of the participants felt that they were moderately to severely lonely - the researchers had expected a maximum of 50 percent. “This is remarkable because the participants in our study were not previously considered to be particularly vulnerable to loneliness,” says Lee's colleague Dilip Jeste. They did not have any mental disorders or illnesses and were also not socially isolated to an above-average degree. “Our participants were just normal people,” said Jeste.

Three high phases of loneliness in life

Also interesting: In the course of a life there are phases in which people particularly often suffer from loneliness. "The severity of loneliness and age have a complex correlation," the researchers say. There is a high phase of loneliness at the end of life for those over 80 years of age. An obvious explanation for this is certainly the social isolation of many old people who have lost friends and life partners through death.

But even at a young age, there are particularly lonely phases in life, as the study reveals. It seems that people in their late twenties suffer particularly often from loneliness. Another phase of life with a high potential for loneliness is the age around 50 - the classic midlife crisis. These noticeable clusters were found in both men and women, as the scientists report.

Social isolation isn't the only trigger

But why do people feel lonely at all? For a long time, social isolation was the main factor behind this feeling. But the new study was only able to confirm this in part: "Our results suggest that we need to think differently about loneliness," says Lee. “It's not just about social isolation. A person can be alone and still not feel lonely. Another is in the midst of people and still feels lonely. "

The researchers emphasize that the complex causes of loneliness are by no means all clear. “There are currently more gaps than answers,” says Jeste. However, three factors seem to have an influence at least to a certain extent: Accordingly, people who live alone are more susceptible. On the other hand, those who are mentally more positive and stable, as well as people with higher wisdom, seem better protected.

Wiser people are also less lonely

“This could be due to the characteristics that commonly define wisdom: empathy and compassion, good emotional self-control, and the ability to self-reflect can effectively counteract or even prevent loneliness,” explains Lee. "A wiser society could therefore also be a happier and less lonely society." (International Psychogeriatrics, 2018; doi: 10.1017 / S1041610218002120)

Source: University of California - San Diego

December 27, 2018

- Nadja Podbregar