Caring Currents

Is Loneliness Among Older Adults Contagious?

Last updated:

December 02, 2009
The Lonely Lady

Have you ever stood in line at the grocery store behind a cranky older person who was complaining to everyone in sight and engaging the cashier in a series of unpleasant exchanges? If so, you witnessed a phenomenon that a team of psychologists and sociologists from the University of Chicago, Harvard, and UC San Diego just documented in an important study.

Using data from the Framingham Heart Study, a huge research effort that's been following a group of more than 5,000 people for 60 years, the researchers found that as they get older, lonely people tend to spread their loneliness among others, often by pushing people away. Instead of engaging with and supporting one another, lonely people gradually, over time, isolate more and more from the rest of society.

"We detected an extraordinary pattern of contagion that leads people to be moved to the edge of the social network when they become lonely," said University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, who led the team. The paper, "Alone in the Crowd: The Structure and Spread of Loneliness in a Large Social Network," came out yesterday in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

People who tend to have fewer friends to begin with desperately need those they have, "yet their loneliness leads them to losing the few ties they have left," Cacioppo says.

But why would this be? Why doesn't an older person who's lonely and isolated take others' advice and reach out in a friendly way? Those of us who care for older people who are depressed and lonely have seen it all too many times.

What happens, Cacioppo says, is that when you're in a negative mood, you're more likely to interact with people in a negative way. So a lonely person's more likely to be gruff, cranky, whiny, or complaining -- and acting that way leads other people to react negatively.

What's even more surprising, though, the study found, is that it's not just a question of the lonely person becoming more isolated; loneliness tends to spread and infect others. The researchers don't know exactly how this happens, but they likened it to the fraying of a sweater. A lonely person makes others around him feel lonely, and the social fabric that knits people together starts to unravel.

A few other interesting observations:
Women are more likely than men to report a greater degree of loneliness. And women's loneliness is more likely to spread through their social networks.
"¢ Peoples' chances of becoming lonely were more likely to be influenced by what happened among friendships than among family relationships.
"¢ Loneliness feeds on itself; people tend to push lonely people away, probably out of discomfort and fear.

As we know, depression and loneliness are associated with a variety of mental and physical diseases that can shorten life. If we look at loneliness like a contagious disease, the researchers said, what's important is to try to recognize it and catch it before it spreads through a group of seniors and isolates them from one another. The one spark of good news? The study found that, on average, people reported being lonely just 48 days out of each year.

That means there are plenty of other days when it might be possible to encourage a lonely older adult to reach out. Helping lonely people recognize that that's what they're feeling is an important first step; naming the feeling as loneliness keeps us from behaving like grumps and driving others away.