Loneliness Soars Among Americans, and This Group Is the Loneliest

Lonely
Adults ages 18 to 22 appear to be the loneliest age group, according to a new study. Laan Thy / Flickr

Loneliness has increased across America, and younger adults are the loneliest of all, according to a new study.

In May, health services company Cigna released the results of a survey of more than 20,000 Americans age 18 and up. The questionnaire included 20 questions from the University of California, Los Angeles's "loneliness scale," and researchers put each participant on a standardized index of loneliness based on the person's answers.

The researchers found several surprising conclusions in the data. Adults 18 to 22 appeared to be the loneliest age group, while adults 77 and up were the least lonely. Only half said that they experienced meaningful in-person interactions on a daily basis.

Research has consistently shown that loneliness and other feelings that adversely affect mental health can also affect physical health. For example, a recent study found that loneliness can literally damage your heart and cause cardiovascular disease. The Harvard Business Review called loneliness a health epidemic. Loneliness in the workplace is shown to be bad for people, bad for business and far too common.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote that 40 percent of Americans feel lonely, a rate that has doubled since the 1980s, according to CBS. Given that social media use has risen drastically since then, and that younger generations experience more loneliness and more social media use, one might suspect that social media causes loneliness.

Last year, a study found that heavy social media use was linked with loneliness. But that study didn't establish causality, meaning it's possible that people who feel lonely simply try to use social media to address and minimize the feeling.

Furthermore, the new Cigna study did not find any significant correlation. Survey takers who reported being "very heavy" users of social media had a loneliness score of 43.5, while those who never used it had a score of 41.7.

However, the Cigna study did identify several things that are strongly linked with feeling less lonely. Getting the right amount of sleep, spending time with family, engaging in physical activity and working reasonable amounts of time all appeared linked with feeling more connected to those around us. Again, the study did not establish causality, so we don't know whether those markers caused people to feel more connected or vice versa.