The risk of social isolation increases with age. Photo by Krystian Olszanski, Flickr CC.

who’s lonely?

The COVID-19 pandemic gave us all a taste of social isolation, which mental health experts have long warned is detrimental to our well-being. Barring a lockdown, though, the risk of becoming socially isolated is more individual, as are its consequences. To help focus the picture, University of Texas researchers Debra Umberson, Zhiyong Lin, and Hyungmin Cha set out to see whether social isolation’s incidence or disadvantages varied throughout the life course or by gender.

Their study, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, draws on a pair of datasets to learn about change in and experiences of social isolation. Respondents were sorted by gender and age (those aged 12-42 and 50+). The process revealed three key trends. First, regardless of gender, it appears Americans become lonelier as they age. Second, this process begins surprisingly early—during the teenage years and young adulthood, as major life changes begin to thin out social relationships. And third, the worst reported consequences of social isolation came before age 50 in men’s accounts, but after age 55 in women’s (a disparity most pronounced among the widowed, divorced, separated, and never married).

Together, the findings suggest those concerned with reducing social isolation will need to develop policies that attend to differences in at-risk populations and the resources needed to keep them socially connected at every age.