Loneliness can begin in childhood — and last a lifetime, study warns

VIENNA, Austria — Loneliness that begins during childhood could have a lasting impact for the rest of a person’s life, a new study warns.

Researchers in Austria found that the odds of being lonely at the age of 50 or older were 1.24 times higher for people who rarely or never had comfortable friends in childhood.

Life circumstances when youngsters are growing up – including having fewer friends and siblings, low-quality relationships with parents, bad health, and growing up in a poorer household – are have a link to a higher rate of loneliness later in life, according to the findings.

Researchers found that personality traits account for more than 10 percent of the variance in loneliness at age 50, while life circumstances during childhood account for seven percent. Loneliness has become an increasing focus of research as more studies link it to deteriorating physical and mental health.

For the new study, Dr. Sophie Guthmuller from Vienna University of Economics and Business and her colleagues used data from the Survey on Health, Ageing, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), which collects information on health and finance from people across Europe over 50. It also looks at data on family and social networks.

The team found that, while poor health is the main factor connecting to loneliness in older age, explaining 43.3 percent of the variance in loneliness, social support in older age also accounts for 27 percent of the variance. Personality traits account for 10.4 percent and life circumstances during childhood account for 7.5 percent.

Income and family relationships also matter

Study authors note that the odds of loneliness age 50 were 1.34 times higher among those who had a fair or poor relationship with their mother as a child in comparison to those with an excellent maternal relationship. Loneliness was 1.21 times higher when someone grew up in a low-income household.

The study also finds loneliness was more common among individuals with a neurotic personality and less common in those displaying higher levels of conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and openness.

The findings, published in the journal PLOS One, confirm the importance of social networks and support in older age, as well as the role of personality traits, and childhood circumstances.

Dr. Guthmuller’s team conclude 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.

“The study finds, as expected, that health status and social support at older ages are the two main factors correlated with loneliness at age 50+,” study authors write in a media release.

“Interestingly, the study reveals that personality traits and life circumstances during childhood are significantly associated with loneliness later in life, after controlling for a large set of later life conditions. In light of the trend of increasing childhood loneliness, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s life, the findings of this study confirms the importance of early life interventions to tackle long term effect on loneliness.”

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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