Science Says You're the Loneliest at These Three Ages in Your Life

Our loneliness follows a pattern through life, argue researchers.

While loneliness has been around ever since humanity first started existing, a growing body of evidence seems to indicate that it's becoming an epidemic in America, especially among the young. Last May, a shocking survey of  20,000 Americans, about half of whom report feeling lonely "almost all of the time," found that those between the ages of 18 and 22 seem to be the loneliest of all generations.

Now, a new study published in the journal International Psychogeriatrics has revealed that the three ages at which loneliness seems to peak are roughly your late-20s, your mid-50s, and and your late-80s.

The researchers used the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which employs a series of statements to calculate a loneliness score between 20 and 80, to assess the levels of loneliness among 340 San Diego residents between the ages of 27 and 101. The results showed that 76 percent of participants had moderate-to-high levels of loneliness—and that it "was correlated with worse mental health and inversely with positive psychological states/traits. Even moderate severity of loneliness was associated with worse mental and physical functioning."

After all, your overall health has a lot to do with your emotional well-being, and loneliness has been found to double the risk of premature death, increase your risk of heart disease and stroke, cause anxiety and depression, and increase your risk of suicide.

"One thing to remember is that loneliness is subjective," Dr. Dilip Jeste, senior author of the study and a professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, told CNN. "Loneliness does not mean being alone; loneliness does not mean not having friends. Loneliness is defined as 'subjective distress.' It is the discrepancy between the social relationships you want and the social relationships you have."

The fact that people seem to be lonelier than ever despite having more avenues of communication than ever before is the great paradox of the digital age. A 2017 study found that people who spent more time on social media actually felt more socially isolated than those who didn't—so the rise of tech addiction certainly seems to be linked to the rise of loneliness. But that study only evaluated adults between the ages of 19 and 32, so it's unclear as to why this study highlighted the late-20s, mid-5os, and late-80s as the peak times for loneliness.

While the researchers don't explain this cycle of loneliness, one can speculate that it has to do with the ages that experience the most life changes. You late 20s signal a major departure from young adulthood, and if many of your friends are getting married and you're still single, it can leave you feeling pretty sad on a Saturday night. Many people experience a mid-life crisis in their mid-50s as they realize they're entering a new phase in the aging process (which also happens to explain why 55 is the age when men are most likely to cheat). And once you're in your late 80s, you start losing friends, which is incredibly hard (and which is why studies have shown that elderly people who have a strong support network tend to live longer).

Jeste did discover one interesting antidote, however. In addition to the UCLA Loneliness Scale, the study's participants were measured on the San Diego Wisdom Scale—a new tool used to assess an individual's levels of wisdom—and found an inverse relationship between wisdom and loneliness.

"In other words, people who have high levels of wisdom didn't feel lonely, and vice versa," he said.

While wisdom may be hard to measure, we generally use the word to describe people who seem to be able to glean meaning and lessons from their experiences, have a fair amount of self-knowledge, and are able to see the bigger picture when things are tough. So, if you're feeling lonely, you might want to stop swiping on Instagram and work on those qualities instead. And for more ways to beat loneliness, check out these science-backed steps for self-help.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more