U.S. Middle-Aged Adults Feel Lonelier Than Those in Europe

A new study published by the American Psychological Association has found that middle-aged adults in the United States report significantly higher levels of loneliness compared to their European counterparts.

The research, which analyzed data from over 53,000 participants across the U.S. and 13 European countries, suggests that this “loneliness gap” may be due to weaker family ties, greater income inequality, and less comprehensive social safety nets in the U.S.

The study, led by Frank Infurna, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University, focused on middle-aged adults between the ages of 45 and 65. Infurna and his team examined data collected from 2002 to 2020, spanning three generations: the Silent Generation, baby boomers, and Generation X.

“Loneliness is gaining attention globally as a public health issue because elevated loneliness increases one’s risk for depression, compromised immunity, chronic illness and mortality,” said Infurna. “Our research illustrates that people feel lonelier in some countries than in others during middle age. It also sheds light on reasons this may be occurring and how governments can address it with better policies.”

The study found that the loneliness gap between the U.S. and Europe widened with younger generations, with late baby boomers and Generation X reporting greater loneliness than older generations. While the U.S. showed consistent historical increases in midlife loneliness, some European nations displayed more varied patterns. England and Mediterranean Europe demonstrated similar increases in loneliness for later-born participants, while Continental and Nordic Europe showed stable or even slightly declining levels across generations.

Infurna and his colleagues identified several potential explanations for the loneliness gap, including differences in cultural norms, socioeconomic influences, and social safety nets between the U.S. and European countries. The U.S. is often characterized by individualism, increased social media use, declining social connections, and increasing political polarization. Additionally, middle-aged adults in the U.S. face pressure from higher residential mobility, weaker family ties, increasing job insecurity, and income inequality, compounded by less comprehensive social safety nets compared to some European nations.

“The cross-national differences observed in midlife loneliness should alert researchers and policymakers to better understand potential root causes that can foster loneliness and policy levers that can change or reverse such trends,” said Infurna.

The researchers emphasize the importance of tailored policy interventions to address loneliness as a public health issue, including promoting family and work benefits, reducing income inequality, and advancing social connections. Infurna advocates for the promotion of social safety nets through generous family and work policies, which may lessen midlife loneliness by reducing financial pressures and work-family conflict while strengthening job security and workplace flexibility.

“As opposed to being considered an epidemic – an outbreak that spreads rapidly and affects many individuals – our findings paint a picture akin to loneliness being endemic, regularly occurring within an area or community,” Infurna said.

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