Summary: Although most people may experience episodes of loneliness, most can overcome their loneliness. However, some people experience persistent loneliness, increasing their risk of physical and mental health issues. A new study suggests that certain ethnicities, people living in poverty and with low community involvement, are more likely to struggle with persistent loneliness.
All people go through difficult times. There are times when we feel lonely or even prefer to stay that way for some time. Being lonely may sometimes even help sort out things. However, prolonged loneliness is altogether a different thing. It may be frustrating, at least. Prolonged loneliness may increase the risk of mental health issues such as anxiety disorder and post traumatic stress disorder. It may even negatively impact physical health. It is not something people would like to experience. Nonetheless, many people suffer from excessive and prolonged loneliness, and researchers have identified certain risk factors for lasting loneliness.
There are certain times when people are more likely to feel lonely, like during the covid-19 pandemic. Social isolation increases the risk of people feeling lonely. However, it is vital to minimize episodes of loneliness to prevent its adverse impact on mental and physical health.
In the new study, researchers surveyed 641 individuals via telephone. Surveyed individuals had an average age of 63. Of course, the study was done intentionally in the older population group, as older people are likelier to be lonely. In the survey, 16% of participants reported persistent loneliness. Another 22% said that though they felt lonely at the beginning of the pandemic, they later adapted. These findings were published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society1.
In the study, researchers paid particular attention to individuals who reported that they could overcome their loneliness with time. And they found that out of them, 53% were white participants, and only 18% were Hispanic/Latinx. It means that certain ethnicities struggle to overcome loneliness, thus putting them at risk of various health issues and even substance use disorders.
Similarly, they found a considerable link between socioeconomic status and the ability to overcome loneliness. Thus, 71% of those living above poverty could overcome their loneliness, compared to 29% of those living in poverty.
Researchers noted that overcoming loneliness may be more difficult for certain ethnic groups or those living in poverty. However, certain intrinsic traits also decide whether one would be able to overcome loneliness. For example, those who can overcome loneliness better connect with others and develop social relationships.
The study found that among those who were able to overcome loneliness, only 26% were socially isolated, compared to 40% who remained lonely. Here it is also vital to understand that older adults are more likely to live with one or another kind of chronic ailment like diabetes, stroke, and cancer. Thus, such individuals are at a greater risk of feeling lonely.
Though the link between poverty and loneliness is relatively easy to explain, but it is more difficult to understand why certain ethnic groups are at a greater risk. It appears that it has to do with the culture of specific population groups. For example, Hispanics and Latinx generally have larger families and are more likely to have family get-togethers. However, social distancing during the pandemic made such gatherings difficult, and thus these ethnic groups experienced greater loneliness.
Similarly, certain ethnic groups are more religious. However, social distancing means fewer events and services, which may also make things worse. As far as people living in poverty are concerned, they have fewer ways of connecting with friends virtually and poor access to medical help, tests, and so on. Thus, these factors may influence their ability to socialize. Similarly, people living in poverty lack personal transport. Therefore, they traveled less during the pandemic.
Other factors not related to ethnicity or socioeconomic background that may considerably increase the risk of persistent loneliness are issues like chronic illness, widowhood, disability, mental health issues, and so on. Researchers say that in the time of the pandemic when people are at a greater risk of experiencing persistent loneliness, there is a need to use interventions like peer support, friendship lines, and so on. Anxiety disorder specialists and all the scenarios suggest to pay closer look to mental health treatments including post-traumatic stress disorder treatment.
By Gurpreet Singh Padda, MD, MBA, MHP