Loneliness is an issue of inequality

By Claire Niedzwiedz

Loneliness is increasingly being prioritised as a public health issue, due to its strong links to illness and premature mortality.  Our new article published in Preventive Medicine (open access version here) highlights that older people’s loneliness varies according to their level of wealth: those with the least experience more loneliness than the wealthiest. We found that taking part in formal social activities, such as attending a sport or social club, may help to reduce the gap in loneliness between the poorest and richest older people, especially among men. But wealthier people are on the whole more likely to participate in such activities.

Loneliness is understood to be a result of the deficit between the actual and desired number (and/or quality) of social interactions and relations. It is increasingly recognised as an important public health issue.  Loneliness is related to a number of health outcomes including coronary heart disease and dementia, and may increase chances of early death by around 26%.

Our study, led by Dr Claire Niedzwiedz, looked at the lives of around 30,000 people aged 65 years and over from across 14 European countries. These people took part in the most recent wave (2013) of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), a large cross-national survey that collects a wealth of information on the experiences of older people. The participants’ loneliness was measured from how often they reported a range of feelings such as isolation from others or a lack of companionship.

We investigated whether a person’s loneliness was related to their household assets (wealth) and whether wealth also influenced their participation in a range of social activities (e.g., attending a community or political organisation, sports or social club, educational or training course, or voluntary group). We found clear social inequality in loneliness across Europe: loneliness was around 10% more common in the poorest group than in the richest group. Similarly, frequent participation in social activities was around 10% more common in the wealthiest groups, compared to the least wealthy.

We then looked at whether taking part in social activities might widen or narrow the inequality in loneliness. If the wealthiest are primarily the ones who participate in social activities, and these help to reduce loneliness risk, then the gap between the rich and the poor may widen. If, however, the poorest benefit more from these activities, inequalities could narrow.  We found that, among the poorest groups, those who often took part in social activities had a similar risk of loneliness to the wealthiest groups, suggesting that participating in these activities may be protective against loneliness.  We found the greatest risk of experiencing loneliness among the least wealthy men who did not participate in social activities very often.

We conclude that taking part in social activities could prevent or reduce loneliness, and may also lead to a narrowing of the gap in loneliness between the richest and poorest older people. Loneliness is therefore an issue of inequality and interventions to reduce loneliness need to carefully consider their potential impact on different social and economic groups.

Full reference:

Niedzwiedz CL, Richardson EA, Tunstall H, Shortt NK, Mitchell RJ, and Pearce JR (2016) The relationship between wealth and loneliness among older people across Europe: Is social participation protective? Preventive Medicine doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2016.07.016

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