The pandemic caused widespread feelings of loneliness and isolation across all demographics of the American population. Many Americans are still lonely, even post-pandemic, and for younger adults, that likelihood is even greater, recent research shows.
In addition to affecting the quality of life and overall health, loneliness is often interrelated with sleep issues, with each exacerbating the other.
Loneliness is widespread
Gallup polls from December 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, found that 25% of adults said they felt lonely “a lot of the day yesterday.” For 18- to 29-year-olds, the number jumped to 38%.
When Gallup polled adults again last year, overall numbers were down – 17% of adults said they felt lonely – but younger adults were still far more inclined to say that they felt this way. The poll also looked at results for adults over age 65, who are traditionally thought of as being at the highest risk for loneliness. Although they were more likely to report feeling lonely than adults as a whole, the rate was about half that of young adults: 13% compared to 24%.
Loneliness vs. social isolation: What are the implications for health and well-being, and for sleep?
While loneliness can be associated with social isolation, the two are actually distinct conditions.
Compared to social isolation, which refers to the level of regular, direct contact one has with others, loneliness is “a subjective sense of how socially connected we are to others,” says Eti Ben Simon, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and sleep researcher with the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s not necessarily objectively how many people are around me.”
With social isolation, she says, “You might be alone, but you still feel that you have people you can trust that you can talk to if you need anything. So there's something about loneliness, I think, that’s more pervasive.”
One recent study of more than 9,000 adults aged 50 and up found that loneliness and social isolation affect health and well-being in different ways.
Being socially isolated can increase the severity of chronic conditions and increase the likelihood of hospitalizations, explains Xiang Qi, Ph.D., a research scientist at New York University’s Rory Meyers College of Nursing, and lead author of the study. Even though the study participants who were socially isolated were more likely to develop insomnia, the data showed that this was largely due to other co-existing factors, including obesity, depressive symptoms, cognitive function, and chronic health conditions.
Loneliness, however, was linked to an increased risk of insomnia, even after these factors were taken into account. At the beginning of the study, none of the participants had insomnia, but 21% met the criteria for being lonely. Four years later, about 16% of participants had developed at least one symptom of insomnia, but the risk was 50% higher for those who were lonely.
Moreover, this increase in insomnia symptoms was “above and beyond” what’s already expected due to advancing age, says Susan Malone, Ph.D., an assistant professor at New York University’s Rory Meyers College of Nursing, and one of the study’s co-authors.
One explanation is that loneliness may translate physiologically into a heightened sense of arousal that’s rooted in a diminished sense of safety. “We feel that there are fewer people around us we can trust, and we see that translate into a shallower, lighter form of sleep,” Ben Simon, the Berkeley sleep researcher, said. “People wake up more often, and they don’t feel refreshed or restored by their sleep.” For people who are chronically lonely, she explained, “that stress in their bodies is interrupting their ability to get a good night’s sleep.”
Loneliness at different ages
For older adults, loneliness can increase due to both lifestyle and health-related factors, Qi notes. Social networks may shrink due to retirement or the deaths of friends or family members. Additionally, chronic conditions such as depression, diabetes, and hypertension may limit social activities, he adds.
Given these factors, loneliness has traditionally been thought of as affecting older adults the most. However, recent research shows that younger adults (under age 30) also have some of the highest levels of loneliness. One study found that Gen Z adult respondents were most likely to feel isolated or lonely, even when with others, and that “no one really knows you well.” while the oldest respondents to the survey (ages 72 and over) were the least likely to indicate any of these feelings.
“It used to be that we’d always think of loneliness as an issue of older adults, but that’s not the case anymore,” Ben Simon says. (While the pandemic exacerbated this, research also links the rise in loneliness among young people with the increase in smartphones and social media use.)
Poor sleep can contribute to loneliness
While loneliness has been shown to impact sleep, the opposite is also true. In one multi-phase study Ben-Simon conducted, sleep-deprived subjects were measured on their preferred levels of physical distance when interacting with others. After a night of no sleep, the subjects kept themselves further apart from the other person, enforcing more physical distance than they had in the same scenario when they were well-rested.
As part of the same study, outside participants watched one-minute video clips showing the subjects either after a night of no sleep, or when they were well-rested. Viewers rated the sleep-deprived subjects as lonelier-seeming and also said they’d be less likely to want to interact with them socially, or collaborate with them on a work project.
Overall, the results showed that sleep loss functions as a “social repellant”: someone who’s sleep deprived is not only seen as socially aversive to others, but pulls back emotionally and even physically from others, Ben Simon says.
Addressing sleep and loneliness
To address this dynamic, focusing on sleep can be an effective intervention.
For young adults, whose sleep loss may be driven by external factors such as overscheduling that restricts their sleep time, Ben Simon suggests making sleep more of a priority. “Allowing themselves to get enough sleep can change their desire and motivation to be around others and feel more connected to others,” she says. “I think that’s very relevant when we think about young adults and loneliness.”
In cases where there are sleep issues such as insomnia at play, she recommends addressing them before they become chronic. Otherwise, she notes, “They start off with insomnia, and, after a year or two, you start seeing their loneliness ratings go up.”
Going outside and spending time in nature as well as green spaces can also help. In addition to the mental-health aspects of being in nature, Malone notes, spending time outdoors, especially in the mornings, helps regulate light-dark cues, which affect sleep. “Getting that outdoor morning light is critical for setting that system in motion,” she says.
In addition to having regular outdoor time, which has the added bonus of providing the opportunity to interact with others, Malone recommends keeping a consistent sleep schedule and “living a regular, rhythmic life.”
“It’s these underlying rhythms,” she explains, “which seem to strengthen and buoy us up.”