Problematic, widespread levels of the public feeling lonely in many countries

COVID infection

New analysis has found that people feeling lonely is at a problematic, widespread level in many countries.

Feeling lonely is a personal, subjective experience and causes can vary greatly. For some people, certain life events may result in feeling lonely, such as experiencing a bereavement, relationship/friendship break up and changing jobs. Previous research suggests that certain groups of people are more at risk of feeling lonely, for example, being a single parent, estranged from your family or having a shortage of money.

The findings uncovered important data gaps, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, and substantial geographical variation in loneliness, with northern European countries consistently showing lower levels compared with other regions.

Existing evidence shows that feeling lonely not only affects mental health and wellbeing, it is also linked to a range of physical health problems and early death.

The new data, published by The BMJ, analysed 113 countries and territories from 2000 to 2019.

Feeling lonely: A global health concern

Recent estimates from United States researchers indicate that one-third of the population in industrialised countries experience feeling lonely, and one in 12 people experience loneliness at a level that could lead to serious health problems. Yet, the question remains, how widespread is loneliness on a global scale? Australian researchers set out to answer this question.

A group of researchers led by the University of Sydney aimed to summarise the prevalence of people feeling lonely globally to help decision-makers understand the scope and severity of the problem. They analysed research databases and found 57 observational studies reporting national estimates of people feeling lonely from 113 countries/territories from 2000 to 2019.

Analysing the data

Data were available for adolescents aged 12 to 17 years in 77 countries or territories, young adults aged 18 to 29 years in 30 countries, middle-aged adults aged 30 to 59 years in 32 countries, and older adults aged 60 years or older in 40 countries.

Data coverage was notably higher in high-income countries (particularly Europe) compared with low- and middle-income countries.

Overall, 212 estimates for 106 countries from 24 studies were included in the meta-analysis. For adolescents, the collective prevalence of feeling lonely ranged from 9.2% in South-East Asia to 14.4% in the Eastern Mediterranean region. For adults, meta-analysis was conducted for the European region only, and a consistent geographical pattern was found for all age groups. For example, the lowest prevalence of loneliness was consistently seen in Northern European countries (2.9% for young adults; 2.7% for middle-aged adults; and 5.2% for older adults) and the highest in Eastern European countries (7.5% for young adults; 9.6% for middle-aged adults; and 21.3% for older adults).

Data were insufficient to make conclusions about trends of feeling lonely overtime on a global scale, but the researchers pointed out that even if the problem of loneliness had not worsened during their search period, the COVID-19 pandemic might have had a profound of loneliness. In this context, they said, “Our review provides an important pre-pandemic baseline for future surveillance.”

They acknowledge their review was subject to limitations, such as different sampling procedures and measures adopted by studies. And they note that the data gaps in low- and middle-income countries raise an important issue of equity. However, considering the negative effects of loneliness on health and longevity, the authors say their findings reinforce the urgency of approaching loneliness as an important public health issue.

“Public health efforts to prevent and reduce loneliness require well-coordinated ongoing surveillance across different life stages and broad geographical areas,” they wrote.

“Sizeable differences in prevalence of loneliness across countries and regions call for in-depth investigation to unpack the drivers of loneliness at systemic levels and to develop interventions to deal with them,” they concluded.

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