Seven Myths About Loneliness

Manuela Barreto wrote . . . . . . . . .

I am quite confident that, like me, you can’t read that we’re living in a loneliness epidemic one more time. I also suspect that if you hear that loneliness kills as much as obesity or smoking again you might start screaming—or am I only speaking about myself here?

Yes, loneliness is not great. It is also pretty prevalent at the moment, especially given the pandemic. This is probably why there is so much being written and said about loneliness right now. But are we saying the right things? Or have a few myths pervaded the conversation?

I think that a few key misconceptions have emerged. Here are seven:

  1. That we are definitely living in an epidemic of loneliness. There is no definitive evidence for this. Well, at least not until the start of the pandemic. To be able to say this, we’d need evidence comparing loneliness prevalence across time. This would need to be data from comparable samples in terms of age, gender composition, geographic location, among others. We do not have much of that. So why do we say this? Is it perhaps that we are living an epidemic of interest in loneliness?
  2. That loneliness is always a bad thing. Yes, it is by definition mainly considered aversive, though this does depend on how it is defined, as there are definitions of loneliness that do not exclude the notion it can be a positive experience. Also, if you ask people what loneliness means to them, sometimes they say it is something positive—and why should we argue with that? Nobody holds the monopoly on how loneliness is defined. Finally, even when it is aversive, loneliness can ultimately have positive results or serve important functions. For example, if feeling loneliness directs us to the importance of reconnecting, then it can at least end well.
  3. That some of us are just ‘lonely people’. Of course, there are people who are lonely so often, for such a long time, that it is tempting to speak of them as ‘lonely people’. And it is true that when loneliness is fairly chronic one might be forgiven to misperceive it as part of who the person is. But I think it is unhelpful to speak in these terms. It is more helpful to think of people ‘feeling lonely’ than people ‘being lonely’. It is more accurate to acknowledge that we are all ‘lonely people’, at times. Loneliness is not about who we are, but about how we feel and our life situation. Thinking like this helps us understand that we can turn things around by changing those circumstances—though ‘we’, in this case, refers at least as much to governments and local authorities, as it does to specific individuals.
  4. That loneliness is a problem of youth and old age. We hear this a lot and sometimes hearing something a lot seems to make it real. But it isn’t. First, not all studies that have the samples that allow for this analysis show these two peaks. Second, speaking in terms of these two peaks obscures more than it reveals. Overstating the importance of age dangerously obscures the importance of many other factors, such as lack of opportunities to connect with others, social exclusion, and geographic isolation. Loneliness is not a sad thing that sad old people feel—it’s a wake-up call that we all should be attentive to, no matter what age.
  5. That to address loneliness all we need is to ‘get out more’. Well, yes and no. Loneliness signals the need to reconnect and in this sense, indeed, to address it we need to ‘get out more’. But getting out more is neither always possible, nor the best way to address loneliness. If you are lonely because you are discriminated against or ostracized, for example, getting out more might just make things worse. If loneliness is associated with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, it is hard to regard social interactions as a good thing, as well as to make the best of these when they happen, which can make you feel even more lonely. In these cases, it is important to take care of ourselves first, to reconnect slowly and gently, and it is important to be sensitive to this in others who feel lonely instead of simply urging them to ‘go out more’.
  6. That the data we have on loneliness necessarily tell us about loneliness. What does it mean when someone says they are not lonely—Does it mean they are not lonely, or does it mean that admitting to being lonely is too painful or stigmatizing? People score lower on measures of loneliness that directly refer to loneliness than to questions that do not make this direct reference. Maybe some people find it hard to admit to feeling something that is socially frowned upon? Or maybe they do not recognise their feelings as loneliness?
  7. That social media is the devil. This one seems obvious to many, but it is never a missed point wherever I go to speak about loneliness—is (increasing) loneliness a product of social media? Hmm. Social media can be used in different ways, with different people. And it is how we use it that determines whether or not it makes us more lonely. In a nutshell, if we use it to extend our offline social relationships, rather than replace them, we are enriching our social life. If we have no other option, we are actually enriching our social life. It is only when we choose social media to replace other social opportunities that it can make us lonely.

Source: Psychology Today

Study Suggests Wisdom can Protect Against Loneliness

Over the last few decades, there has been growing concern about loneliness across all ages, particularly in middle-aged and older adults. Loneliness, defined as feeling isolated or not having an adequate number of meaningful personal connections, is consistently associated with unhealthy aging and has been identified as a major risk factor for overall adverse health outcomes.

In a recent cross-cultural study, researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine and University of Rome La Sapienza examined middle-aged and older adults in San Diego and Cilento, Italy and found loneliness and wisdom had a strong negative correlation.

The study, publishing in the online edition of Aging and Mental Health, suggests wisdom may be a protective factor against loneliness.

“An important finding from our study was a significant inverse correlation between loneliness and wisdom. People with higher scores on a measure of wisdom were less lonely and vice versa,” said Dilip V. Jeste, MD, lead investigator of the study, senior associate dean for the Center of Healthy Aging and Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

“Loneliness was consistently associated with poor general health, worse quality of sleep and less happiness, whereas the reverse was generally true for wisdom.”

Using the UCLA Loneliness Scale and San Diego Wisdom Scale, the researchers examined four groups: adults age 50 to 65 and those older than age 90 from Cilento and from San Diego. The researchers found the inverse correlation between loneliness and wisdom in all four groups.

“We translated the rating scales for loneliness and wisdom from English to Italian. It is remarkable that the findings related to these two traits were largely similar in two markedly different cultures — a rural region of southern Italy and an urban/suburban county in the United States, both with different native languages and unique historical, educational and socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Salvatore Di Somma, MD, PhD, lead Italian investigator and professor of emergency medicine at University of Rome La Sapienza.

The Cilento region in southwestern Italy is a relatively isolated, rural area believed to have a high concentration of individuals older than age 90. The present study was born out of the Cilento Initiative on Aging Outcomes (CIAO) study launched in 2016.

“Both loneliness and wisdom are personality traits. Most personality traits are partially inherited and partially determined by environment,” said Jeste.

Wisdom has several components, such as empathy, compassion, self-reflection and emotional regulation. Researchers found that empathy and compassion had the strongest inverse correlation with loneliness. People who were more compassionate were less lonely.

“If we can increase someone’s compassion, wisdom is likely to go up and loneliness is likely to go down,” said David Brenner, MD, vice chancellor of UC San Diego Health Sciences. “At UC San Diego, we have considerable interest in enhancing empathy and compassion to reduce levels of stress and improve happiness and well-being.”

Jeste said studies that examine how to decrease loneliness as people age will be critical for effective interventions and the future of health care.

“Routine assessment of loneliness with evidence-based, compassion-focused interventions for prevention and management of loneliness should become an integral part of clinical practice. So how do you increase compassion? Utilizing approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy or writing in a gratitude diary can help someone become more compassionate,” he said.

Jeste noted that a limitation of this study was that it was cross-sectional. Only longitudinal studies can establish cause-and-effect relationships. Next steps will include testing an intervention to increase compassion for reducing loneliness.

Source: UC San Diego

Loneliness May Fuel Mental Decline in Old Age

Slower deterioration seen in people with more satisfying relationships, researchers say.

Loneliness and depression are linked to an increased risk of mental decline in the elderly, a new study suggests.

Researchers analyzed data from more than 8,300 American adults aged 65 and older who were assessed every two years between 1998 and 2010. Seventeen percent reported loneliness at the beginning of the study, and half of those who were lonely had depression.

Over the course of the study, mental decline was 20 percent faster among the loneliest people than among those who weren’t lonely. People who were depressed at the start of the study also had faster mental decline.

However, lower mental function did not lead to worsening loneliness, according to the study scheduled for presentation Monday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Washington, D.C. Data and conclusions presented at meetings are usually considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

“Our study suggests that even one or two depressive symptoms — particularly loneliness — is associated with an increased rate of cognitive decline over 12 years,” study author Dr. Nancy Donovan said in an association news release. She is a geriatric psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

“We found that lonely people decline cognitively at a faster rate than people who report more satisfying social networks and connections. Although loneliness and depression appear closely linked, loneliness may, by itself, have effects on cognitive decline,” she explained.

This is important to know for the development of treatments to enhance mental health and quality of life for older adults, she added.

The new study suggested a link between loneliness, depression and heightened risk of mental decline, but it did not prove cause-and-effect.

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services