Understanding loneliness in the twenty-first century: an update on correlates, risk factors, and potential solutions

Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2020 Jul;55(7):793-810. doi: 10.1007/s00127-020-01889-7. Epub 2020 Jun 10.


Purpose: Loneliness is increasingly recognised as the next critical public health issue. A plausible reason for this concern may be related to emerging societal trends affecting the way we relate, communicate, and function in our social environment. In 2006, a prominent review of the clinical significance of loneliness was published. However, there has not been a comprehensive update on known and emerging risk factors and correlates of loneliness since then. Furthermore, there is no conceptual model that has been developed to better account for the complexity of loneliness and to inform the development of evidence-based solutions as we challenge the issues of the twenty-first century.

Methods: We reviewed the current literature to identify either known or emerging risk factors and correlates of loneliness since 2006. This includes new or known evidence on: (1) demography; (2) health, including physical health; mental health; cognitive health; brain, biology, and genetics; and (3) socio-environmental factors including digital communication and the workplace.

Results: We synthesized the literature according to a new proposed conceptual model of loneliness which showed the interplay between known and emerging correlates and risk factors from demography, health, to socio-environmental factors. In the conceptual model of loneliness, we illustrated how solutions can be delivered and tailored to an individual based on their life circumstances and preferences.

Conclusion: We concluded by making specific recommendations in advancing our scientific understanding of loneliness. Our knowledge can only be deepened if we increase scientific rigour via accounting for confounding variables and using longitudinal, multi-disciplinary, and multiple methodologies in research. We also call for the rigorous evaluation of programs targeting loneliness.

Keywords: Loneliness; Mental health; Physical health; Social neuroscience; Solutions.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Communication
  • Humans
  • Loneliness / psychology*
  • Mental Health / trends*
  • Public Health
  • Risk Factors
  • Social Environment*