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Loneliness plagues half of U.S. adults

May 1, 2018
by Tom Valentino, Senior Editor
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Nearly half of the participants in a Cigna study released Tuesday said they regularly experience feelings of loneliness, with the youngest adults surveyed—those ages 18 to 22—being both the loneliest and the group claiming the worst overall health.

Cigna used the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a 20-question assessment, to gauge subjective feelings of loneliness and isolation in 20,000 U.S. adults. Among the findings, 46% of respondents reported sometimes or always feeling alone, and 47% said they sometimes/always feel left out. Feelings of loneliness increased with each younger generation:

  • Generation Z (18- to 22-year-olds): 48.3%
  • Millennials (23-37): 45.3%
  • Generation X (38-51): 45.1%
  • Boomers (52-71): 42.4%
  • Greatest Generation (72-and-up): 38.6%

“Loneliness is not necessarily just a generational or demographic issue. It affects everyone,” says Douglas Nemecek, MD, Cigna’s chief medical officer for behavioral health. “It’s important for us, if we are going to move to taking care of people in a holistic, integrated way, to pay attention to loneliness and to work with individuals to increase their social connectedness, lessen loneliness and ultimately improve their overall health.”

Just 53% of respondents overall reported having regular, meaningful, in-person social interactions. Such interactions were found to be in direct connection with good overall health, as 31% of those in fair/poor health reported having daily in-person interactions vs. 58% of those in good, very good or excellent health.

Notably, social media use was deemed to not be a predictor of loneliness. A study released in March by Pew Research Center found 88% of U.S. adults ages 18 to 29 use social media, a percentage that drops with each older age group. In the Cigna study, however, respondents of all five categories of social media usage—from very heavy users to those who never use social media—all reported similar feelings of loneliness, with average scores for each group ranging between 41.7 and 44.5. (A score of 43 or higher on the UCLA scale indicates loneliness.)

“Those that were heavy social media users were not significantly more lonely than those who were not social media users,” Nemecek says. “However, the important thing that was demonstrated in the study was the importance of in-person connections with others is what helps decrease loneliness.”

“Balance” was a theme frequently connected with other factors linked to lower loneliness scores. Having too little—or too much—of the following each correlated with higher loneliness scores: sleep, time spent with family, physical activity, and amount of work on the job.

Living situations also were found to impact loneliness levels. Those who live with others had an average loneliness score of 43.5 compared to 46.4 for those who live alone. Single parents, meanwhile, were the loneliest group, with scores averaging 48.2

 

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