Social and emotional loneliness across the adult lifespan
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Description: Loneliness is associated with a range of detrimental consequences for one’s physical and mental wellbeing. Even though loneliness is thought to affect people of all ages, very few studies have examined the experience of loneliness across the adult lifespan. Additionally, no study has considered the distinction between social and emotional loneliness across the adult lifespan, even though it has long been considered to be functionally important. To address these issues, the present study examined the prevalence of social and emotional loneliness across the entire adult lifespan by using data from two separate cohorts of a nationally representative survey (N ~8,000 per cohort, age range 16: ~90). By doing so, we estimated how similar or distinct patterns of social and emotional loneliness were across the adult lifespan, as well as how consistent they were across two large cohorts and the extent to which such patterns supported the predictions from existing models of loneliness. The results consistently showed that the prevalence of social and emotional loneliness differs as a function of age. Emotional loneliness peaked in younger and older adulthood, and thus supported accounts that propose U-shaped distributions of loneliness. In contrast, social loneliness was largely stable in early and middle adulthood, before dropping steeply in later stages of life. As such, the pattern of social loneliness did not support existing U-shaped accounts of loneliness or accounts that predict increases in older age. Therefore, the most immediate contribution of these findings is to update basic understanding of loneliness by providing robust evidence that details how an individual’s experience of particular types of loneliness is likely to vary across the adult lifespan. In the longer term, the findings also have potential societal and clinical importance by informing how interventions might be designed to target specific loneliness subtypes and age groups.