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Nov. 21, 2005

Lonely in an aging crowd: U-M studies count the ways

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—As the holidays approach, loneliness becomes the spirit of Christmas present for all too many older people.

According to a University of Michigan study presented Nov. 19 at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, nearly 60 percent of more than 500 adults age 70 and older experienced some form of loneliness.

"Loneliness is more common among older adults than it is among younger people," said Katherine Fiori, a doctoral candidate in developmental psychology and Daniel Katz Fellow at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR).

The findings presented by Fiori, who was just named an AARP Scholar, provide a more nuanced view of loneliness in later life, and how it affects the health and well-being of older people.

Because of the deaths of spouses and friends, role changes such as retirement, and deliberate attempts to "prune" their social networks to include only people they feel close to, older adults typically do not have as many people in their social circles as younger people do, Fiori said. The size of the social networks among older men and women in her study ranged from zero to 41 people, with a median of 9.5 people.

But loneliness is not a function of the number of people in one's social network, Fiori found. "It's about how you feel about your relationships with those people."

About 22 percent of those surveyed were emotionally lonely, feeling alone, left out and lacking in close companionship. About 16 percent were socially lonely, feeling that they had no one to talk to or turn to and that they didn't really belong to any group. Another 19 percent were isolated, experiencing both social and emotional loneliness.

About 43 percent were connected, experiencing neither type of loneliness.

Fiori and colleagues Jacqui Smith at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and Toni Antonucci at the U-M found that the size of the social network was not related to mental health and subjective well-being. In fact, emotionally lonely people with large social networks—those who were lonely in a crowd—were slightly more depressed and less satisfied with their lives than similarly lonely people with small social networks. The sample used in the analysis was drawn from the longitudinal Berlin Aging Study.  

In a related study forthcoming in the January 2006 issue of the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, Fiori and colleagues analyzed how the type of social networks older adults have is related to their mental health. In this study, based on a sample of 1,669 U.S. adults age 60 and older, surveyed as part of the ISR Americans' Changing Lives study, the researchers found that friendships were more important than family relationships in predicting good mental health. Even after the researchers controlled for health, income, age and other variables, those men and women whose social contacts were limited mainly to family members were more likely to have symptoms of depression.

"Even though family relationships are important, they're obligatory," Fiori said. "Friendships are optional, however, and may help people continue to feel independent. In addition, friends seem to provide emotional intimacy and companionship, and integration into the community.

"For widowed men and women, friends may be especially important in keeping loneliness and depression at bay around the holidays."

Related links:

U-M Institute for Social Research

U-M Psychology Department

Gerontological Society of America


Berlin Aging Study

Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world's oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world's largest computerized social science data archive. Visit the ISR Web site at for more information.


Contact: Diane Swanbrow
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