Lonelyville, USA: Three factors mean middle-aged adults in America are far more likely to be lonely than their European peers, report says

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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  • Middle-aged Americans lonelier than peers in Europe, England, and Scandinavia 
  • Possibly due in part to weaker family ties, social media, and income inequality 
  • READ MORE:  More than half of American adults say they are lonely

Middle-aged Americans are lonelier than their peers in Europe and may explain why people in the US tend to die younger, according to a new report. 

Researchers looked at data involving 53,000 adults in the US and 13 European countries, focusing on the answers from individuals age 40 to 65. 

They found middle-aged Americans consistently scored higher on a metric used for comparing loneliness levels in the US with those of other countries, according to the results published by the American Psychological Association.

The authors of the report highlighted three main cultural norms that could be driving an epidemic of loneliness in the US: a focus on individualism, weaker family ties, and widespread use of social media. 

The above graph shows that multiple generations adults born after 1946, late baby boomers particularly, were consistently lonelier than the silent generation when they reached middle age. Each group has a long, thin line showing the overall trend over the years, and short, thick lines show how loneliness changes each year within that age range

Loneliness has been linked to a range of mental and physical health effects, including sleep disorders and metabolic conditions that affect a person's weight

Loneliness has been linked to a range of mental and physical health effects, including sleep disorders and metabolic conditions that affect a person’s weight

Dr Frank Infurna, a psychologist at Arizona State University and lead author of the study, said: ‘Loneliness is gaining attention globally as a public health issue because elevated loneliness increases one’s risk for depression, compromised immunity, chronic illness and mortality, 

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

Persistent feelings of loneliness have been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, various forms of dementia, and death.

Lonelines has been found to increase stress and therefore levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can contribute to heart disease and its risk factors, including high blood pressure. Loneliness may also lead to unhealthy behaviors such as overeating and leading a sedentary lifestyle, contributing to rates of obesity. 

In addition to contributing to feelings of depression and anxiety, loneliness and being alone can weaken a person’s immune system and possibly leading to cognitive decline and various forms of dementia. 

A US government report last year revealed some of the physical effects of loneliness included a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease; a 32 percent increased risk of stroke; and a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia for older adults.

Life expectancy in the US is lower than that of several other countries. In 2022, the CDC estimated the life expectancy at birth in the US increased to 77.5 years, up 1.1 years from 76.4 years in 2021, but still down 1.3 years from 78.8 years in 2019, before the Covid pandemic. 

Life expectancy in the US is now lower than peer nations with similar GDPs. Germany’s life expectancy is 80.7 years, Canada’s is 81.3, France’s is 82.3, and Japan’s is 84.1.  

Researchers from the US and Germany examined a series of studies that collect data over a long period of time. 

They looked at data from 2002 to 2020 from the US and 13 European countries across three different generations: the Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1946), baby boomers (born from 1946 to 1964) and Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980).

Dr Frank Infurna, a psychologist at Arizona State University and lead author of the study, said: ‘We focused on middle-aged adults because they form the backbone of society and empirical evidence demonstrates that U.S. midlife health is lagging other industrialized nations.

‘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.’

They zoomed in on baby boomers specifically, dividing the group in their analyses into early baby boomers – those born from 1946 to 1954 – and late baby boomers from 1955 to 1964.

On average, middle-aged early baby boomers in the US felt lonelier than their peers in Europe. The same was true for middle-aged late baby boomers in the US, who reported feeling lonelier compared to their peers in England, Continental Europe, Mediterranean Europe, and Nordic Europe.

In Generation X, middle-aged adults from the US felt more lonely compared to people of the same age group across Europe, though, the difference in loneliness levels between the US and England was not big enough to be considered statistically significant.

Dr Infurna said: ‘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.’

Late baby boomers born from 1955¿1964 were lonelier than those in other countries

Late baby boomers born from 1955–1964 were lonelier than those in other countries

Early baby boomers in the US were also lonelier than their peers in Europe and England

Early baby boomers in the US were also lonelier than their peers in Europe and England

Gen X saw a similar trend showing higher loneliness scores in the US compared to other countries

Gen X saw a similar trend showing higher loneliness scores in the US compared to other countries

The researchers said that the United States’ deep-seated values of individualism may be to blame. A longstanding ethos in the US is one that prioritizes individualism, individual achievement, and growth to attain personal goals and the elusive ‘American dream’.

As a result, social support groups and connections with others can become neglected. Job insecurity and income inequality as well as lack of childcare and access to healthcare are all believed to exacerbate loneliness. 

The researchers said: ‘Social and economic inequalities likely have powerful effects on midlife loneliness through undermining one’s ability to meet basic needs, restricting opportunities for upward economic mobility, and constraining people’s ability to lead lives one has reason to value.’ 

And rates of loneliness in the US are on the rise. 

A 22 study from Cigna, one of America’s largest health insurers, surveyed around 10,000 Americans on their current feelings in December 2021.

Over half, 58 percent, reported that they felt lonely. This nearly matches the pre-pandemic total – from 2019 – of 61 percent of adults feeling lonely. 

Social media does not appear to help. Scrolling and viewing others having fun or taking part in interesting activities can compound loneliness even further.

At the same time, the number of Americans living alone has hit a new record level at 37.9 million, up 4.8 million, or 15 percent, from 2012.

The latest research was published in the journal American Psychologist.  

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