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Understanding loneliness in the twenty-first century: an update on correlates, risk factors, and potential solutions

Abstract

Purpose

Loneliness is increasingly recognised as the next critical public health issue. A plausible reason for this concern may be related to emerging societal trends affecting the way we relate, communicate, and function in our social environment. In 2006, a prominent review of the clinical significance of loneliness was published. However, there has not been a comprehensive update on known and emerging risk factors and correlates of loneliness since then. Furthermore, there is no conceptual model that has been developed to better account for the complexity of loneliness and to inform the development of evidence-based solutions as we challenge the issues of the twenty-first century.

Methods

We reviewed the current literature to identify either known or emerging risk factors and correlates of loneliness since 2006. This includes new or known evidence on: (1) demography; (2) health, including physical health; mental health; cognitive health; brain, biology, and genetics; and (3) socio-environmental factors including digital communication and the workplace.

Results

We synthesized the literature according to a new proposed conceptual model of loneliness which showed the interplay between known and emerging correlates and risk factors from demography, health, to socio-environmental factors. In the conceptual model of loneliness, we illustrated how solutions can be delivered and tailored to an individual based on their life circumstances and preferences.

Conclusion

We concluded by making specific recommendations in advancing our scientific understanding of loneliness. Our knowledge can only be deepened if we increase scientific rigour via accounting for confounding variables and using longitudinal, multi-disciplinary, and multiple methodologies in research. We also call for the rigorous evaluation of programs targeting loneliness.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. TPR is also commonly referred to as vascular resistance.

  2. Brain regions including bilateral inferior parietal lobule and right anterior insula.

  3. Brain regions including posterior temporal parietal junction, left superior temporal sulcus, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, and rostro-lateral cortex.

  4. Relationship may include those who surround the lonely individual (e.g., colleagues in the workplace or family).

  5. Items from the UCLA loneliness scale [152].

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Acknowledgements

Acknowledgements to Professor Gavin Lambert for reviewing the manuscript.

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This article is part of the focused issue ‘Loneliness: contemporary insights on causes, correlates, and consequences’.

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Lim, M.H., Eres, R. & Vasan, S. Understanding loneliness in the twenty-first century: an update on correlates, risk factors, and potential solutions. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 55, 793–810 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-020-01889-7

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Keywords

  • Loneliness
  • Social neuroscience
  • Physical health
  • Mental health
  • Solutions