Are U.S. older adults getting lonelier? Age, period, and cohort differences

Psychol Aging. 2019 Dec;34(8):1144-1157. doi: 10.1037/pag0000365.


Media portrayals of a loneliness "epidemic" are premised on an increase in the proportion of people living alone and decreases in rates of civic engagement and religious affiliation over recent decades. However, loneliness is a subjective perception that does not correspond perfectly with objective social circumstances. In this study, we examined whether perceived loneliness is greater among the Baby Boomers-individuals born 1948-1965-relative to those born 1920-1947 and whether older adults have become lonelier over the past decade (2005-2016). We used data from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project and from the Health and Retirement Study collected during 2005-2016 to estimate differences in loneliness associated with age, birth year, and survey time point. Overall, loneliness decreased with age through the early 70s, after which it increased. We found no evidence that loneliness is substantially higher among the Baby Boomers or that it has increased over the past decade. Loneliness is, however, associated with poor health, living alone or without a spouse-partner, and having fewer close family and friends, which together accounted for the overall increase in loneliness after age 75. Although these data do not support the idea that older adults are becoming lonelier, the actual number of lonely individuals may increase as the Baby Boomers age into their 80s and beyond. Our results suggest that attention to social factors and improving health may help to mitigate this. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved).

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Loneliness / psychology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United States