US Middle-Aged Adults Report Loneliness More Than European Adults: Why Is This?

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A new study found late baby boomers and Generation X reported greater levels of loneliness than early baby boomers and the Silent Generation.

Middle-Aged Adults Report Loneliness More Than European Adults: Why is This?

Frank Infurna, PhD

Credit: Arizona State University

Middle-aged adults in the US report significantly greater levels of loneliness than their European counterparts, and this is suggested to be because of weaker family ties and greater income inequality, a recent study reported.1,2

“We focused on middle-aged adults because they form the backbone of society and empirical evidence demonstrates that US midlife health is lagging other industrialized nations,” said lead investigator Frank Infurna, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University, in a press release.2 “Middle-aged adults carry much of society’s load by constituting most of the workforce, while simultaneously supporting the needs of younger and older generations in the family.”

Lately, loneliness is viewed as a public health issue due to the associated risks of depression, compromised immunity, chronic illness, and mortality. The “loneliness gap” widened due to the younger generations of late baby boomers and Generation X reporting greater loneliness than the older generations of early baby boomers and the Silent Generation. The research found middle-aged adults reported lower levels of psychological well-being, poorer physical health, chronic illness, and more daily stress following the Great Recession from 2011 – 2014 than middle-aged adults assessed in 1995 – 1996.3

“Our research illustrates that people feel lonelier in some countries than in others during middle age,” Infurna said. “It also sheds light on reasons this may be occurring and how governments can address it with better policies.”

Infurna and colleagues collected participants from ongoing, nationally representative longitudinal surveys from the United States and 13 different countries, including England, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Spain, France, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, and Israel, from 2002 – 2020.1 Examples of surveys used were the Health and Retirement Study (United States), English Longitudinal Study of Aging (England), and Survey of Health, Aging, and Retirement (Europe), The study included > 53,000 participants, aged 45 – 65 years, from 3 different generations: The Silent Generation, baby boomers, and Generation X.

The data revealed early baby boomers at age 57 years reported 4.6 T-score units—or 0.46 SD—greater levels of loneliness than the rest of the participants (intercept = 54.63; P < .0001).

The US demonstrated consistent increases in midlife loneliness during the study period. Broken down to age groups, baby boomers in the US reported greater levels of loneliness than England, Continental Europe, Mediterranean Europe, and Nordic Europe. As for Generation X, adults in the US reported greater levels of loneliness in all the same nations as baby boomers did except in England, which had an insignificant difference.

Trying to understand why middle-aged adults in the US report more loneliness, investigators identified differences in cultural norms, socioeconomic influences, and social safety nets between the US and Europe. They found cultural norms are often centered around individualism, increased social media use, declining social connections, and a rise in political polarization.

Not only do US adults face potentially harmful cultural norms but they have greater residential mobility, weaker family ties, more job insecurity, and income unequally. US adults may also struggle more than Europeans for family leave, unemployment protection, and childcare support.

“The cross-national differences observed in midlife loneliness should alert researchers and policymakers to better understand potential root causes that can foster loneliness and policy levers that can change or reverse such trends,” Infurna said.2

The study also showed loneliness in Europe is increasing more in younger generations (late baby boomers, Generation X) than older generations (early baby boomers, The Silent Generation), the rise slightly behind the US.

The team outlined several limitations, including only having data from high-income nations and not assessing for facets of loneliness other than isolation.1

Investigators stressed the importance of policy interventions aimed to help specific generations, such as promoting family and work benefits and reducing income inequality—all of which can help reduce midlife loneliness.

“The U.S. surgeon general advisory report coupled with nations appointing ministers of loneliness have shined a bright light on loneliness being a global public health issue,” Infurna said.2 “As opposed to being considered an epidemic – an outbreak that spreads rapidly and affects many individuals – our findings paint a picture akin to loneliness being endemic, regularly occurring within an area or community.”

References

  1. Infurna, F. Dey, N, Gonzalez, T, et al. Loneliness in Midlife: Historical Increases and Elevated Levels in the United States Compared with Europe. American Pscyhological Association. 2024. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0001322.
  2. Middle-Aged Americans Lonelier Than European Counterparts. News Wise. March 13, 2024. https://www.newswise.com/articles/middle-aged-americans-lonelier-than-european-counterparts. Accessed March 15, 2024.
  3. Almeida, D. M., Charles, S. T., Mogle, J., Drewelies, J., Aldwin, C. M., Spiro, A., & Gerstorf, D. (2020). Charting adult development through (historically changing) daily stress processes. American Psychologist, 75(4), 511–524. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000597
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