Development of loneliness in midlife and old age: Its nature and correlates
von Soest, Tilmann
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Research has long demonstrated that loneliness is a key risk factor for poor health. However, less is known about the development and predictors of loneliness across later adulthood. We examined these questions using two-wave data obtained 5 years apart in the population-based Norwegian NorLAG study (N = 5,555; age 40-80 years; 51% women). We considered direct measures of loneliness (asking directly about feeling lonely) and indirect measures (avoiding the term loneliness) and linked them to self-report data on personality and contact with friends, and to register data on socioeconomic (education, income, unemployment), physical health (sick leave, lifetime history of disability), and social factors (children, marriage/cohabitation, lifetime history of divorce and widowhood). Results indicated that levels of loneliness increased steadily for women, whereas men’s levels followed a U-shaped curve, with highest loneliness at ages 40 and 80. At age 40, loneliness declined between the two data waves, but with increasing age the decrease abated and turned into increases when loneliness was measured indirectly. Disability, no spouse/cohabitating partner, widowhood, and little contact with friends were each associated with more loneliness. Similarly, people high in emotional stability and extraversion reported less loneliness and experienced steeper loneliness declines on one or both loneliness measures. We take our results to illustrate the utility of combining self-report and register data and conclude that the development of loneliness across the second half of life is associated with both individual difference characteristics and aspects of social embedding. We discuss possible mechanisms underlying our findings and consider practical implications.