A Look at Growing Chronic Loneliness

There is solitude, something all of us need from time to time, and then there is loneliness. Loneliness is defined by one U.K. charity as being overwhelmed by an unbearable feeling of separateness at a very deep level.1 Someone can experience abject loneliness at any age and with any number of friends, online or otherwise. Sometimes this type of loneliness is temporary, such as when someone loses a spouse or moves to another city. In other cases, it can become chronic. It is the effects of chronic loneliness that have prompted the U.K. to appoint a "loneliness minister" and the U.S. Senate Aging Committee to address social isolation and loneliness.

Risk Factors

• Documented risk factors for loneliness include:

—Living alone,
—Being unmarried,
—Not participating in social groups,
—Having few friends, and/or
—Having strained relationships.2

• Potential risk factors include:

—Retirement, and
—Physical disability.3

Some Statistics on Chronic Loneliness

• Between 20 and 43 percent of U.S. adults over the age of 60 experience frequent or intense loneliness.4
• 28 percent of the U.S. population lives alone.5
• The majority of Americans do not participate in social groups.6
• The average size of core social networks has declined by one-third since 1985.7
• The average household size has been decreasing, and there has been a 10 percent increase in the number of those who live alone.8
• A meta-analysis of 148 studies shows that loneliness and social isolation could increase an individual's risk of premature death by 50 percent, which is greater than the risk of premature death due to smoking or obesity.9
• Among respondents to a 2010 AARP survey:10

—With respect to age: Of those 45 to 49 years old, 43 percent reported feeling lonely; of those over 70,
only 25 percent reported feeling lonely.

—With respect to health: Of those who rated their health as "poor," 55 percent reported feeling lonely;
of those who rated their health as "excellent," only 25 percent reported feeling lonely.

Loneliness Is Global

• In Japan, social withdrawal, particularly among men, is so prevalent that there is a specific word for it: hikikomori, which means, "pulling inward, being confined." Numbers from 2010 show that around 700,000 people in Japan live as hikikomori and that the average age of such individuals is 31.11

• A five-year study (2007-2012) of German people between the ages of 35 and 74 found that 10.5 percent of them reported some degree of loneliness. Loneliness was correlated to increased depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. Suicide ideation increased from 6 percent to 42 percent among the loneliest participants in the study.12

• A study from the Netherlands followed 2,000 people between the ages 65 and 86. None of the participants had signs of dementia at the beginning of the study.
Results showed that those who reported feeling lonely had a 64 percent increased risk of developing dementia.13

A Spiritual Poverty

Mother Teresa says in her book A Simple Path that the greatest threat to the West today is not tuberculosis or leprosy, but being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. "The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty—it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There's a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God."

has an M.S. in chemistry from the University of Texas at Dallas, and an M.A. in bioethics from Trinity International University. She resides in Dallas and currently works as a freelance science writer and educator.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #44, Spring 2018 Copyright © 2019 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo44/going-it-alone