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Research on loneliness

Research on loneliness

27 November 2018
Dr Deborah Morgan

This page on loneliness is part of a new initiative to help people in Wales access research on topics related to social care. The research is chosen or ‘curated’ by people who have professional experience of research in the topic area.

Dr Deborah Morgan

About the researcher

Dr Deborah Morgan

Deborah is a researcher in the Centre for Ageing and Dementia Research (CADR) at Swansea University. She has a background in social gerontology, sociology and health and social care.

What is loneliness?

A widely used definition of loneliness was developed by Jenny De Jong Gierveld in 1998:

‘Loneliness is a situation experienced by the individual where there is an unpleasant or inadmissible lack of quantity or (quality of) certain relationships. This includes situations in which the number of existing relationships is smaller than is considered desirable or admissible, as well as situations where the intimacy one wishes for has not been realised. '

This means that someone can have a small group of friends and never experience loneliness because they meet their needs. Or alternatively, someone can have a large group of friends and still feel lonely because those relationships are not as numerous as they’d like or they are not the quality of relationship they desire.

Social isolation is different, and is defined as the absence of contact with other people. Loneliness, on the other hand, is a natural phenomenon and most people will feel lonely at some point in time. Loneliness becomes a problem when it goes on for a long period of time – this is called ‘chronic loneliness’.

Loneliness over a long period of time is harmful to our physical and mental health. Researchers have found that loneliness has been linked with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke, and with an increased risk of high blood pressure. Research in the US found that loneliness increases the risk of dying early by 26%. Loneliness is also associated with an increased risk of mental health problems such as depression.

Loneliness in Wales

Data from the 2016-17 National Survey for Wales found that around 440,000 or 17% people report being lonely in Wales. The National Survey for Wales also found that poverty was a factor in loneliness with 37% of those in material deprivation being lonely. In comparison, only 12% of those who weren’t materially deprived (12%) reported being lonely.

Loneliness is more commonly associated with later life, even though it can be experienced at any age.

In fact, the data from the National Survey shows that in Wales more people between 16-44 are lonely than older people.

At the same time, the data from the Analysis of interim data from the Maintaining Function and Well-Being in Later Life study (Cognitive Function and Ageing Wales) found that among older adults (65+) participating in the study 24.3% were lonely and 29.6% were isolated.

New to loneliness research?

Start here if you’re new to research or would just like an overview of the topic. Here are some quick facts on loneliness.

Want to know what you can do to alleviate loneliness? The Making a difference - a pocket guide to help you deal with loneliness will help you deal with loneliness has handy tips and hints from people in Wales who have recovered from loneliness. 

A 15 minute TEDX talk from Deborah describing the real-life impact of loneliness in later life.

A magazine from Age Cymru puts a spotlight on tackling loneliness and social isolation among older people in later life. 

A short 6 minute research animation which shows how cognitive impairment and dementia can lead to loneliness, and the steps we, as individuals, can adopt to help address this.

More detailed research on loneliness

If you would like more detailed information, the following are reports about different aspects of loneliness.

Interesting piece on diversity in the loneliness experience. Alone in the crowd - loneliness and diversity are short essays and stories about loneliness from people living with cancer, LGBT and BME communities, carers, people with sensory impairment and those living in care homes (among others).

What works to alleviate loneliness? Promising approaches to reducing loneliness and isolation in later life are case studies from across the UK on how to alleviate loneliness in older people.

Trapped in a bubble - An investigation into triggers for loneliness in the UK is a report by the Red Cross and the Co-op that looks at the triggers from loneliness for young new mums (aged 18 – 24), people with mobility limitations, those with health issues, recently divorced or separated people, people without children living at home, retirees and the recently bereaved.

All our emotions are important - Breaking the silence about youth loneliness is an interesting study of young people and loneliness. The researchers interviewed 2,001 16-25-year olds in the UK.

Measuring your impact on loneliness in later life is guidance for people working to prevent or reduce loneliness in the community. It includes the different ways of measuring loneliness and the pros and cons of each approach. It is useful if you want to measure loneliness in services and organisations.

An in-depth look at loneliness

Start here if you’re looking for academic research articles on loneliness.

A recent overview of systematic reviews and evaluation reports conducted between 2008 and 2018 on what works to alleviate loneliness.

Interested in young people’s experiences of loneliness? Loneliness Connects Us is a project using an immersive theatre experience to explore youth loneliness (research report and videos).

Loneliness and social isolation are two distinct but related concepts, this interesting paper from Canada explores Why it is important to examine these social aspects together within research studies and when planning interventions.

Loneliness in Glasgow’s deprived communities is an interesting report of a Scottish study which explored the relationship between loneliness and poverty. View the full report Loneliness, social relations and health and well-being in deprived communities.

A life less lonely: the state of the art in interventions to reduce loneliness in people with mental health problems is a short research paper which reviews the evidence on loneliness interventions for people with mental health problems.

Living alone and cognitive function in later life research was conducted in Wales and looks at the relationship between living alone, loneliness and cognitive impairment.

This paper ‘It’s most of my life – going to the pub or the group’: the social networks of involuntarily childless older men focuses on the social networks of older involuntarily childless men. With the number of people ageing without children on the increase, this timely paper looks at some of the issues for older men and the implications for loneliness in later life.

‘Older Men at the Margins: how men experience and combat loneliness and social isolation in later life’ was a two-year study which set out to understand how older men, aged 65 and over, from different social backgrounds and circumstances experienced loneliness and social isolation. The study also explored how men sought to stay connected with others and feel less lonely. These insights are useful for service provision for older men who are less likely to report loneliness than older women. The link has access to more information and video content from the men themselves.

This UK study, ‘Social relationship adversities throughout the lifecourse and risk of loneliness in later life’, explored how social experiences throughout life shaped later levels of loneliness. This paper highlights the role of adverse social relationship experiences in earlier life, which may explain why differences in levels of loneliness may exist among socially similar individuals.

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