Middle-aged Americans are lonelier than ever, with new research showing they are even more isolated than some of their peers in Europe.

That does not bode well for their health.

“Loneliness is gaining attention globally as a public health issue because elevated loneliness increases one’s risk for depression, compromised immunity, chronic illness and [premature death],” said study author Frank Infurna, an associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University in Tempe.

For the new research, Infurna’s team used representative surveys from the United States and 13 European nations to look at how loneliness has changed over time and how it differs from one country to the next. 

All told, the surveys included more than 53,000 people from the Silent Generation (1928-45), Baby Boomer (1946-64) and Generation X (1965-80). When they took the surveys, between 2002 and 2020, participants were between 45 and 65 years of age.

“We focused on middle-aged adults because they form the backbone of society and empirical evidence demonstrates that U.S. midlife health is lagging other industrialized nations,” Infurna noted in an American Psychological Association news release. “Middle-aged adults carry much of society’s load by constituting most of the workforce, while simultaneously supporting the needs of younger and older generations in the family.”

Still, middle-aged Americans reported higher levels of loneliness than many folks in Europe. 

And the younger folks were lonelier than the older ones. Late Baby Boomers and Generation X reported more loneliness than those from the Silent Generation and early Baby Boomers.

Midlife loneliness rose consistently in the United States over the study period. Trends in Europe differed. 

While late Boomers and Gen X respondents in Mediterranean countries and England had similar increases in loneliness, Nordic countries and continental Europe had stable or slightly declining levels.

Researchers said the findings are a wake-up call for U.S. health officials, although U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy already sounded the alarm on the “epidemic of loneliness” in America in a 2023 report.

“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,” Infurna said.

Differences in cultural norms, economics and social safety nets appear to contribute to the “loneliness gap” between Europe and the United States, researchers found.

For example, the individualism, declining social connections and political polarization are the norm in the United States, they said. Middle-aged Americans also tend to relocate more often and have weaker family ties than their European counterparts. 

Adding to the pressure on this age group are growing job insecurity and income inequality as well as family leave, unemployment and child care policies that are less comprehensive than those in Europe, the study found.

Even so, researchers found that Europeans were almost as lonely as their U.S. counterparts.

The findings were published March 18 in the American Psychologist, a publication of the American Psychological Association.

Infurna said loneliness as a public health issue has put a global spotlight on the need to advance social connections. 

“The U.S. surgeon general advisory report, coupled with nations appointing ministers of loneliness, have shined a bright light on loneliness being a global public health issue,” Infurna said. “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.”

More information

The American Medical Association has more about what doctors with their patients knew about loneliness and health.

SOURCE: American Psychological Association, news release, March 18, 2024