Childhood circumstances impact loneliness later in life, study finds

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A recent study found a correlation between loneliness in older adults and certain factors of their childhood including their number of friends and siblings, relationship with their parents, health, and socioeconomic status.

The study was published in PLOS ONE and led by Sophie Guthmuller, PhD, assistant professor at the Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien Institute for Social Policy in Vienna, Austria. According to the study, evidence suggests that high levels of loneliness can negatively impact mental health, physical health, and risk of death. For this study, Guthmuller set out to discover the effects that childhood circumstances have on levels loneliness later in life. To do so, Guthmuller analyzed data from a large cross-national Survey on Health, Aging, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). All participants were over the age of 50 and filled out questions on their current and childhood health, socioeconomic status, and their relationships with family members and friends. Guthmuller measured the participants’ levels of loneliness through a scale known as the R-UCLA Loneliness Scale.

The study’s results suggested that there may be a relation between childhood circumstances and loneliness in older adults. While bad health, social support, and personality traits were much more likely to affect rates of loneliness, the study found that childhood circumstances accounted for 7.50 percent of the variance of loneliness.

Guthmuller found that those over 50 years old who rarely, if not ever, had comfortable friendships during their childhood, were 1.24 times more likely to be lonely compared to those who experienced several comfortable friendships. Those who had a poor relationship with their mother during their childhood were 1.34 times more likely to experience loneliness later in life than those with strong maternal relationships. Finally, loneliness was 1.24 times higher in those who grew up in a poor household compared to those who grew up in wealthy households.

This study indicates childhood experiences may have a significant impact on how lonely and individual is later in life, underscoring the importance of positive childhood experiences.

“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," said Guthmuller in a statement.