UCSD Study Examines Loneliness and its Impacts Across Different Ages


Lindsey Choo

A recent UC San Diego study on loneliness and its impact on different age groups has revealed that loneliness is the highest in the 20s, peaks again in the 40s, and is at the lowest in the 60s. The study, which was published online in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry on Nov. 10, conducted research through a large web-based survey of 2,843 participants of ages 20 to 69 from across the United States. 

The research design identified loneliness as a serious public health problem due to its effects on health, well-being, and longevity, and the study sought to examine age-related differences in risk and protective factors for loneliness. To measure loneliness, participants completed the four-point UCLA Loneliness Scale, the San Diego Wisdom Scale, and other scales measuring psychosocial variables. 

After the month-long survey, researchers found that there were several potentially modifiable targets related to loneliness, including several important aspects of wisdom and social self-efficacy. Due to different predictors across the age range, the study concluded that there is a need for a personalized and nuanced prioritization of prevention and intervention of loneliness using the above targets. 

In an interview with The UCSD Guardian, Tanya T. Nguyen, Ph.D., Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the UCSD School of Medicine and co-author of the study, noted that compassion was one of the most important targets to prevent loneliness, as it affected social self-efficacy. 

“Our research suggests that prosocial behaviors, or compassion, in other words, could be one of the strongest protective factors for loneliness,” Nguyen said. “We see this across the lifespan, especially so in older adults, but I still think it can be very meaningful for younger adults. So [this includes] participating in activities that give back to the community in some way, reaching out to others. I think that the more we reach out in service of helping others will also help our own sense of well-being.” 

The study also concluded that across all decades, loneliness was associated with not having a spouse or partner, sleep disturbance, lower prosocial behaviors, and smaller social networks. With the exception of people in the 60s, lower social self-efficacy and higher anxiety contributed to higher levels of loneliness. 

When asked about the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact among people in their 20s, which includes approximately 63 percent of UCSD students according to the latest available data, Senior Associate Dean for Healthy Aging and Senior Care at the UCSD School of Medicine and co-author of the study Dilip Jeste, MD, said that while the pandemic might have worsened levels of loneliness, the problem of loneliness is not a new one. 

“There’s kind of been a pandemic of loneliness going on for the last 20 years, which is causing increased rates of suicide, increased deaths from opioid abuse, and the reason this has been going on for the last 20 years is not clear, but through many factors of globalization and really rapid growth of technology,” Jeste said. 

Jeste went on to discuss the potential negative effects of globalization and the expansion of technology, especially for young adults. 

“Globalization and technology is good, but there are some adverse effects,” Jeste said. “Competition has increased, because you’re now not just competing with local people but with people from anywhere in the world. Because of the rapid growth in technology and increased communication, there is an information overload, which is causing more stress. There is this constant feeling that we are behind.”

Both Nguyen and Jeste noted that the growth of social media has helped to connect people and increase accessibility which can help loneliness and increase social self-efficacy, but may also be weaponized for cyberbullying. 

While on-campus student health-and-wellbeing services like the UCSD Counseling and Psychological Services have been established since the late 1960s, Jeste also emphasized the importance of preventive approaches starting in K–12 schools and echoed Nguyen’s sentiment on compassion. 

“I think the issue is that we need to focus our education not strictly on the subjects that we study, but also on the soft skills of thriving in life, the skills that are a part of wisdom,” Jeste said.

Jeste listed various important components of wisdom that should be taught in schools. 

“Things like self-reflection, the ability to think about yourself,” Jeste said. “Secondly, emotional regulation, control over your emotions. Third, and very importantly, is compassion. Empathy and compassion, trying to understand other people, why they are being so, and how to help them. Compassion also includes self-compassion, [as] we sometimes tend to be overly self-critical. Another component of wisdom is accepting diversity of perspectives and values. That acceptance is not there often.”

UCSD CAPS is fully operational as of Fall Quarter 2020, with its central office and urgent care, located at Galbraith Hall 190 in Roger Revelle College, open during regular hours. CAPS provides individual, group, couples, and family psychotherapy to registered undergraduate and graduate students, as well as a variety of wellness programs like the Triton Flourish Program.

Visual created by The UCSD Guardian Data Viz team

Photo taken by Kristina Tripkovic from Unsplash