Social isolation and loneliness can be harmful to both mental and physical health. They are considered significant health and wellbeing issues in Australia because of the impact they have on peoples’ lives. Part of the challenge in reporting on social isolation and loneliness stems from a lack of information about these experiences. Also, there are no universally-agreed upon definitions.

Difference between social isolation and loneliness 

Social isolation is seen as the state of having minimal contact with others. It differs from loneliness, which is a subjective state of negative feelings about having a lower level of social contact than desired (Peplau & Perlman 1982). Some definitions include loneliness as a form of social isolation (Hawthorne 2006) while others state that loneliness is an emotional reaction to social isolation (Heinrich & Gullone 2006). The two concepts do not necessarily co-exist—a person may be socially isolated but not lonely, or socially connected but feel lonely (Australian Psychological Society 2018; Relationships Australia 2018). For example, research suggests that the number of friends a person has is a poor predictor of their loneliness (Jones 1982).

How many people are lonely?

Most Australians will experience loneliness at some point in their lives (Relationships Australia 2018). One in 3 Australians reported an episode of loneliness between 2001 and 2009, with 40% of these people experiencing more than 1 episode, according to a study of loneliness using data from the longitudinal Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey (Baker 2012).

Additionally:

  • 1 in 10 (9.5%, or around 1.8 million based on 2016 population) Australians aged 15 and over report lacking social support (Relationships Australia 2018)
  • about 1 in 4 report they are currently experiencing an episode of loneliness (Australian Psychological Society 2018)
  • 1 in 2 (51%) report they feel lonely for at least 1 day each week (Australian Psychological Society 2018).

Most incidents of loneliness will last for 1 year or less, however, if loneliness lasts longer than this it is likely to last for 3 or more years (Baker 2012).

What causes social isolation and loneliness?

Although there is no guarantee that an individual’s family household composition will either lead to or protect against loneliness, some situations are more likely to be associated with loneliness than others.

According to the 2016 Census of Population and Housing, about 1 in 4 (24%) Australian households are lone person households and 71% are family households. Of family households, 45% consisted of a couple with children, 38% a couple without children and 16% were a one-parent family with one or more children (ABS 2016).

Living alone and not being in a relationship with a partner are substantial risk factors for loneliness (Flood 2005; Lauder et al. 2004; Relationships Australia 2011). Relationship separation tends to result in an increase in loneliness across ages and genders, however, the effects are more pronounced for men than women. Recently separated men are more than 13 times more likely to develop loneliness than married men, as opposed to twice as likely for separated women compared with married women (Franklin & Tranter 2008). Single parents experience higher levels of social isolation (38% for men, 18% for women) than singles adults without children, or couples with or without children (Relationships Australia 2018).

Disconnection from community (Relationships Australia 2018) is a risk factor for developing loneliness. It has been suggested (for example, MacKay 2017) that social fragmentation, or disorganisation and isolation in a particular geographic area (Maguire & O’Reilly 2010) can influence social isolation and loneliness, although there appears to be little difference between levels of social isolation and loneliness in particular geographic areas (Baker 2012).

Unemployment, receiving income support (Relationships Australia 2018) and lack of satisfaction with financial situation (Baker 2012) are also substantial factors in the development of loneliness across age groups and gender.

Loneliness can be self-reinforcing if it is associated with an experience of depression and anxiety, particularly around social interactions (Australian Psychological Society 2018).

Impact

Loneliness has been linked to premature death (Holt-Lunstad et al. 2015), poor physical and mental health (Australian Psychological Society 2018; Relationships Australia 2018), and general dissatisfaction with life (Schumaker et al. 1993).

Social isolation has also been linked to mental illness, emotional distress, suicide, the development of dementia, premature death, poor health behaviours, smoking, physical inactivity, poor sleep, and biological effects, including high blood pressure and poorer immune function (Hawthorne 2006; Holt-Lunstad et al. 2015). High levels of social isolation are also associated with sustained decreases in feelings of wellbeing (Shankar et al. 2015).

Social isolation and loneliness a risk for premature death

The risk of premature death associated with social isolation and loneliness is similar to the risk of premature death associated with well-known risk factors such as obesity, based on a meta-analysis of research in Europe, North American, Asia and Australia (Holt-Lunstad et al. 2015).

The economic cost of loneliness in Australia is likely to be substantial, although no current estimate of this cost is available. By way of example, a 2017 United Kingdom (UK) study estimated the total cost to UK employers, including absenteeism, caring, lost productivity and turnover, from loneliness experienced by their employees at £2.5 billion (AUD$4.5 billion) per year (New Economics Foundation & The Co-Op 2017).

Who experiences social isolation and/or loneliness?

Social isolation and loneliness vary across age groups (Figure 1). Loneliness tends to be more common in young adults, males, those living alone and those with children, either singly or in a couple (Baker 2012).

Men tend to report higher levels of loneliness than women (Flood 2005; Relationships Australia 2018). In a study using HILDA data, among adults aged 25–44, more men living alone experienced loneliness (39%) than women living alone (12%) (Baker 2012). This difference in loneliness may be due to women tending to have more social support than men (Flood 2005).

Studies investigating the relationship between age and loneliness often have contradictory findings, likely related to differences in study methods and sample variations. Some studies find higher levels of loneliness among older people (Relationships Australia 2018) while others find lower levels in these age groups (Relationships Australia 2011). Rates of loneliness may also vary according to relationship status, with another study finding that Australians aged over 65 who are married experience the lowest levels of loneliness (Australian Psychological Society 2018).

 

Column graph showing the percentage of each age group experiencing social isolation or loneliness. Rates for loneliness: 15 to 19 years old, 18.2%; 20 to 24 years old,17.4%; 25 to 29 years old, 16.7%; 30 to 34 years old, 15.4%; 35 to 39 years old, 16.3%; 40 to 44 years old, 18%; 45 to 49 years old, 16.4%; 50 to 54 years old,18%; 55 to 59 years old, 17%; 60 to 64 years old, 16%; 65 to 69 years old, 13%; 70 to 74 years old, 14.7%; 75 to 79 years old, 19.1%; 80+ years old, 19.5%. Rates for social isolation: 15 to 19 years old, 7.1%; 20 to 24 years old, 7.1%; 25 to 29 years old, 11%; 30 to 34 years old, 9.8%; 35 to 39 years old, 9.8%; 40 to 44 years old, 9.2%; 45 to 49 years old, 9.9%; 50 to 54 years old, 10.4%; 55 to 59 years old, 11.8%; 60 to 64 years old, 9.4%; 65 to 69 years old, 8.2%; 70 to 74 years old, 8.9%; 75 to 79 years old, 7.9%; 80+ years old, 7.9%. 

The relationship between income and loneliness varies depending on age and gender. For example, men aged 25–44 on high incomes are more likely to be lonely, while women of all ages on low incomes are far more likely to be lonely than those on high incomes (Baker 2012).

There are few differences in loneliness levels between urban, regional and rural areas (Baker 2012). Young men who live in regional areas, however, experience higher rates of social isolation than men in Major cities (Relationships Australia 2018).

Can social isolation and loneliness be prevented or reduced?

Having paid work and caring for others are important safeguards against loneliness. Engaging in volunteer work and maintaining active memberships of sporting or community organisations are also associated with reduced social isolation (Flood 2005). However, it is unclear whether community engagement can consistently act as a protective factor in the development of loneliness. For example, one study found that loneliness is lower in people who spend at least some time each week volunteering (Flood 2005), while another study found no relationship between loneliness and volunteering, socialising and participating in sport and community organisations (Baker 2012). As social contact alone does not reduce loneliness (Masi et al. 2011), it may be that the building of quality relationships, rather than volunteering in and of itself, can reduce feelings of loneliness.

Companion animals

In 2016, 62% (5.7 million) of Australian households owned a pet, with the two most common types of pet being dogs (38%) and cats (29%). Around two-thirds of dog and cat owners reported ‘Companionship’ as a reason for owning a pet and a similar proportion consider their pet a part of their family (Animal Medicines Australia 2016). Another survey found 60% of owners felt more socially connected as a direct result of owning a pet (Petplan Australia 2016). Pet ownership has been linked to increased social contact, for example, through facilitating contact with neighbours and acting as a trigger for conversations (Wood et al. 2015), which may help counter social isolation (McNicholas et al. 2005).

Being in a relationship is a greater protective factor against loneliness for men than for women (Baker 2012). Women living with others and women living alone report similar levels of loneliness, while men living alone report higher levels of loneliness than those living with others (Flood 2005).

Government initiatives

Awareness of loneliness and social isolation as significant public health and wellbeing issues has increased in recent years, along with the development of targeted government and community support programs for affected Australians. Federal, state and territory and local governments have all provided varying degrees of funding and support to local councils and community organisations for programs to address the social isolation and loneliness of Australians. For example, the Australian Government funds a national Community Visitors Scheme, which supports local organisations to recruit volunteers who provide regular visits to Australians in receipt of Commonwealth-subsidised aged care services (Sutherland Shire Council 2018).

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on social isolation and loneliness, see:

References

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Australian Psychological Society 2018. Australian loneliness report: A survey exploring the loneliness levels of Australians and the impact on their health and wellbeing. Melbourne: APS.

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