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Mental Health

Study warns loneliness that begins during childhood can last a lifetime

A study reveals that personality traits and life circumstances during childhood are significantly associated with loneliness later in life.

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Empty swing on children playground in city.
(Photo by Greens and Blues via Shutterstock)

By Stephen Beech via SWNS

Loneliness can begin in childhood - and last a lifetime, warns a new study.

Researchers 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 all linked with a higher rate of loneliness in older age, according to the findings.

Researchers found that personality traits account for more than 10 percent of the variance in loneliness at age 50 and over, while life circumstances during childhood account for seven percent.

Loneliness has become an increasing focus of research as it has been shown to be linked with deteriorating physical and mental health and to increase with age.

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

The team found that, while ill health is the main factor correlated with 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.

Dr. Guthmuller said: "The odds of loneliness age 50 and over were 1.24 times higher for people who rarely or never had comfortable friends in childhood compared to those who more often had friends, 1.34 times higher in those who had a poor relationship with their mother as a child compared to those with an excellent maternal relationship, and 1.21 times higher when one grew up in a household with poor wealth compared to those in a wealthy household.

"Loneliness was more common in individuals with a neurotic personality and less common in those who scored highly for conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and openness."

She said that 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 concluded 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.

She added: “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+.

"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.”

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