The central theses
- Loneliness and social isolation are linked to mental and physical health problems, especially for people over 50.
- Having friends of different ages can do more than prevent loneliness; it helps us learn new skills and makes us more open-minded.
Three groups are most at risk of loneliness, data from the UK Community Life Survey shows:
- Widowed elderly homeowners living alone with long-term health problems
- Middle-aged unmarried adults with long-term health problems
- Younger people who rent and may not feel part of the community
Here is a solution that seems almost to convenient: What if these groups became friends?
According to a study published late last year, making friends with someone from a different generation is a powerful way to curb loneliness. It helps broaden perspectives, expand support networks, and ultimately improve social inclusion.
It’s a strategy that works for Ariana Thao, a 24-year-old who recently started her law degree at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.
“During the pandemic I was actually pretty comfortable with being lonely, but now that I’m in a big, new city with no support system, sometimes I feel really lonely,” Thao told Verywell.
After joining a nonprofit volunteer organization called Freedom, Inc. in neighboring Wisconsin, she began spending time with women over 10, 20, and 30 years older than her. They soon became her mentors, her support system, and her friends.
“Being in my 20s is like being in the trenches,” she said. “I’m still building my life and a lot of the people around me who are the same age are doing the same things and feeling the same way. But my older friends are not. They give me the confidence that I can do it.”
Kimberly Vue, a 27-year-old academic advisor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, helped her befriend peers in their 40s to find her groove at work, where she initially felt isolated and like an impostor.
“As a first-generation professional, there were so many things I didn’t know, like understanding the work culture, work-life balance and how to deal with conflicts. I felt like I was starting from scratch,” Vue told Verywell.
Her work friends assured her that they felt the same way.
“Being able to talk to my older friends about these things validates my experience and gives me peace of mind,” she said. “I think I really needed that at such a pivotal time in my life, especially as part of an immigrant family where my parents don’t offer that source of older wisdom.”
Intergenerational friendships are mutually beneficial
While Thao and Vue appreciate the life experience and advice of their older friends, the benefits go both ways.
“As we age, we may feel more alone if we don’t make an effort to stay active and connect with people,” Neda Gould, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Verywell announced via email.
When older adults, in particular, befriend someone from a younger generation, they’re more likely to learn new skills and be more outgoing, Gould said.
Thao believes she offered her older friends a new perspective on culture.
“We will have in-depth conversations where I introduce new perspectives on sex positivity, generational trauma and race-based perspectives,” she said. “I was able to shed light on some of their children’s experiences and offer advice based on what I went through as a rising adult.”
Why loneliness is a health problem
While loneliness at any age can be linked to health issues like depression, Adults over 50 are also at higher risk of health problems that can be exacerbated by loneliness and social isolation, including dementia, heart disease, stroke and even premature death.
As a result, the commitment to social connectedness increases over time.
Importantly, loneliness and social isolation are not the same, Diane Meier, MD, a professor of geriatrics and palliative care at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told Verywell. Loneliness refers to feeling alone despite many social interactions, while social isolation is primarily a lack of interactions, typically measured over the course of a day or week.
Postmenopausal women may be at particularly high risk for health complications related to both loneliness and isolation. Research published in JAMA network open in February shows that in nearly 58,000 women followed for eight years, social isolation was associated with an 8% increase in cardiovascular disease, while loneliness was associated with a 5% increase.
Women who reported experiencing both had a 13% to 27% higher risk of heart disease than women with low scores on loneliness and isolation.
Additional studies show loneliness may double risk of type 2 diabetes and lead to significantly poorer outcomes in patients with heart failure.
“It is abundantly clear that human contact is essential for health,” said Meier. “We have to think about social contacts and dealing with people almost as much as we do about healthy eating and exercise.”
Meier describes the prevalence of loneliness and social isolation among older adults as a relatively recent phenomenon related to a more mobile population and younger generations moving away from home.
“From an evolutionary perspective of our species, living in intergenerational groups is normal,” she said.
She also considers friendships between generations to be normal.
“Regardless of age, everyone is only human; you are no less human at 75 than at 25,” said Meier. “We have to learn to see that we are all human and that we are all in this together. Age is just a feature like height, weight or eye color.”