Scientists from Vienna University of Economics and Business found that life circumstances during childhood—including having fewer friends and siblings, low-quality relationships with parents, bad health, and growing up in a poorer household—are all linked to a higher rate of loneliness in older age.
The research is published in PLOS ONE and was conducted by Sophie Guthmuller et al.
Loneliness has been a growing topic of interest over the last decade, as it has been shown to be linked with ill health and to increase with age.
Loneliness is correlated with a higher risk of developing mental conditions, and a deterioration in physical health, and is linked to mortality and higher health care utilization.
In the study, the team used data from the large cross-national Survey on Health, Ageing, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), which collects information from individuals across Europe aged 50 and older.
They found that while ill health is the main factor correlated with loneliness in older age, explaining 43.32% of the variance in loneliness, social support in older age also accounts for 27.05% of the variance, personality traits account for 10.42%, and life circumstances during childhood account for 7.50%.
The odds of loneliness age 50 and over were 1.24 times higher for people who rarely or never had comfortable friends in childhood compared to those who more often had friends,
1.34 times higher in those who had a fair or poor relationship with their mother as a child compared to those with an excellent maternal relationship,
and 1.21 times higher when one grew up in a household with poor wealth compared to those in a wealthy household.
Loneliness was more common in individuals with a neurotic personality and less common in those who scored highly for conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and openness.
The findings of this study confirm the importance of social networks and support in older age, as well as the role of personality traits, and childhood circumstances.
The team concludes that early interventions are key to targeting later loneliness and that interventions aimed at increasing social support in later life need to be adapted to all personality types.
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