Childhood Circumstances and Personality Traits Are Associated With Loneliness in Older Age

Summary: A combination of personality traits and childhood circumstances account for why some older people experience loneliness more than others. Lonely adults over 50 were 1.24 times more likely to have rarely, or never, had comfortable friendships during childhood, and 1.34 times more likely to have had poor relationships with their mothers as children.

Source: PLOS

Life circumstances during childhood—including having fewer friends and siblings, low-quality relationships with parents, bad health and growing up in a poorer household—are all correlated with a higher rate of loneliness in older age, according to a new study published this week in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Sophie Guthmuller of Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria.

Loneliness has been a growing topic of interest over the last decade, as it has been shown to be linked with ill health and to increase with age. Loneliness is correlated with a higher risk of developing mental conditions, a deterioration in physical health, and is linked to mortality and higher health care utilization.

In the new study, Guthmuller used data from the large cross-national Survey on Health, Ageing, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), which collects information from individuals across Europe aged 50 and older on health, socioeconomic status, and social and family networks. Loneliness was measured with the R-UCLA Loneliness Scale.

Guthmuller found that while ill health is the main factor correlated with loneliness in older age, explaining 43.32% of the variance in loneliness, social support in older age also accounts for 27.05% of the variance, personality traits account for 10.42% and life circumstances during childhood account for 7.50%.

The odds of loneliness age 50 and over were 1.24 times higher for people who rarely or never had comfortable friends in childhood compared to those who more often had friends, 1.34 times higher in those who had a fair or poor relationship with their mother as a child compared to those with an excellent maternal relationship, and 1.21 times higher when one grew up in a household with poor wealth compared to those in a wealthy household.

Loneliness was more common in individuals with a neurotic personality (OR 1.20) and less common in those who scored highly for conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and openness.

This shows a child walking alone, carrying a stuffed lion
The odds of loneliness age 50 and over were 1.24 times higher for people who rarely or never had comfortable friends in childhood compared to those who more often had friends. Image is in the public domain

Guthmuller points out that the findings of this study confirm the importance of social networks and support in older age, as well as the role of personality traits, and childhood circumstances. She concludes that early interventions are key to targeting later loneliness and that interventions aimed at increasing social support in later life need to be adapted to all personality types.

The author adds, “The study finds, as expected, that health status and social support at older ages are the two main factors correlated with loneliness at age 50+. Interestingly, the study reveals that personality traits and life circumstances during childhood are significantly associated with loneliness later in life, after controlling for a large set of later life conditions.

“In light of the trend of increasing childhood loneliness, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s life, the findings of this study confirms the importance of early life interventions to tackle long term effect on loneliness.”

About this loneliness and neurodevelopment research news

Author: Press Office
Source: PLOS
Contact: Press Office – PLOS
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Loneliness among older adults in Europe: The relative importance of early and later life conditions” by Sophie Guthmuller et al. PLOS ONE


Loneliness among older adults in Europe: The relative importance of early and later life conditions

The aim of this paper is to study the association between childhood circumstances and loneliness in older adults in Europe. Based on rich information collected by the Survey on Health, Ageing, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) on childhood characteristics and individual characteristics at age 50+, the study is able to control for personality traits, socioeconomic and demographic factors, social support and health in later life, and country-specific characteristics.

The analyses show strong correlations between life circumstances in childhood and feeling lonely in older age; these correlations remain significant after adjusting for covariates.

While ill health is the main factor correlated with loneliness at 50+, as expected, the analysis of the relative importance of the determinants reveals that personality traits account for more than 10% of the explained variance and that life circumstances during childhood account for 7%.

Social support at older ages is the second highest category of factors, accounting for 27%—with, interestingly, support at home and social network characteristics contributing about 10% each, engaging in activities and computer skills accounting for 7% of the explained variance. Demographic and socioeconomic factors account for 6% and country-level characteristics contribute 5%.

This paper points out the relevance of early life interventions to tackling loneliness in older age, and it shows that early interventions and interventions aiming at increasing social support in later life need to be adapted to all personality types.

Thus, the role of childhood circumstances and the mechanisms explaining the association between loneliness in childhood and loneliness in later life deserve more attention in future research.

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  1. Well loneliness is very hard to break out.I had a great BFF he pasted away and life is never the same…..

    1. Jerome, I am so sorry for your loss. I hope you are able to heal. Just know that you will always carry your best friend with you in your heart and your memories and nobody can ever take that from you. Wishing you all the best.

  2. I agree with this study whole heartedly. My family life was horrible; physical and emotional abuse. I have no friends and don’t want any. Am I lonely? Yes. Do I trust people to find a friend? No. I’m married and that’s all I will allow in my personal life

    1. 41 with no friends had 1 recently but wife cheated with him. Saw my mom murdered and found my dad dead from o.d.i literally have no one and I’m lonely as hell

      1. Justin, I hope that you somehow see this message. 1st I want to say I’m so sorry you’ve endured so much trauma and heartache in your life already. I’m a 39yr old empath(it’s a blessing and a curse) with a big heart and no life so if you ever need/want someone to talk to I’ll talk to you. Being alone and having nobody to talk to really sucks so feel free to reach out if you want. Idk how we’d get in contact or stay in contact with each other though,maybe fb messenger or email? Either way I hope things start to get better for you.

  3. If I’m understanding the article, it’s form is that depending on ones social status growing up contributes to loneliness in old age. That being said, does not abandonment in early childhood years contribute to loneliness as we age? A person can come from a financially stable background but if abandoned by a parent emotionally not trust enough to forge connections with others.

    1. Pat, in my personal experience,yes being abandoned(in any form) as a child does contribute to loneliness as we get older. Because as you stated it makes it more difficult to form bonds due to fear of trusting someone just to be abandoned again. I obviously can’t speak for others but as I said it’s my personal experience. I’m almost 40 and I’m all alone and struggle because after being abandoned as a child and then continously being abandoned over and over as an adult, I’m terrified to try to become friends with anyone because I don’t want to get my heartbroken and be abandoned again.

  4. I grew up in a middle-class family, with an older brother and sister but there was a 14-year difference between my brother and myself and my sister was the eldest. so I basically grew up with nobody around me my father was always busy working and I did not have a good relationship with my mother. so I found myself constantly by myself trying to entertain myself very few friends growing up, not really comfortable with making more friends and I thought am I lonely or am I alone well when I was younger I just thought I was just alone and I was fine with that. My job was working on the road on music tours so I had the backstage laminate for working and I could walk out into a crowd of 20,000 people and feel absolutely alone. but as Life goes on I start to notice that I don’t have groups of friends to talk to, I don’t have hobbies and that alone feeling has developed into Big Time loneliness. I never married or had children I have no family or support group around me
    In viewing other families I see how important it is to have family ties

    1. My father was raised in an upper economic status and received much. However, he didn’t get along with his mother.
      His father put him in a private, exclusive boys’ school, and he barely made it yet somehow graduated.
      In the ’50s, learning disabilities such as Asburgher’s syndrome and autism were not on the “map.”

      His father made him president of a family company. He became an alcoholic due to many factors. Stress from ( I believe from the issues mentioned above.

      He has always struggled with maintaining meaningful relationships, i.e., my mother divorced him 11 years later ( she is a social butterfly).

      He bled the family business. The money went dry (his spending was out of control gambling in Vegas), and my brother was named vice-president of this company. My brother is gifted and talented. He was made to feel inferior by my father’s jealousy. Yet, despite the harassment, my brother kept the business afloat. With the stress and devaluation of my father’s comments, he also became an alcoholic.

      Loneliness factor: My father has it all materially, yet what does he do in his 80’s? He spends his time alone on a cruise ship that goes worldwide. Twenty-two times consecutively.

      Both quit drinking on their own 15 years ago. (neither one knew they both had alcoholism.)

      I yearned for a father figure growing up. I thought I was the one with the problem! I internalized it and am now learning how to deal with anxiety and depression and the complete economic insecurity that was once bountiful.

      I do not blame my father; I blame our society that refuses to see mental illness as an illness. What if we ignored cancer and diabetes?

      In school shootings, a gun does not pull a trigger; people do. That is why I appreciate this site! WHY are we stuck in the middle ages? Research, more research! More emphasis is needed to answer the questions as to behavioral outcomes. Track children for markers to prevent this chaos.

    2. Marc, I’m sorry to hear that you have no family or friends. I know how you feel,my “family” doesn’t acknowledge that I exist and the “friends” I’ve had left me. People say I need to make friends but how does someone do that when they’ve been abandoned over and over their whole life. Anyway if you ever need someone to talk to feel free to reach out. We all need someone to at least talk to once in a while.

  5. I lived with many siblings. 7 . My mother had many ups and downs, we always ask after
    school , how is she today, ? is she mad. We were the servants of the house. We did the
    laundry,cooking, washing diapers out etc. We also were used in their nursery business
    we worked in the garage everyday after school. This really isolated us from friends,
    getting educated. we were poor, dirty, and this made my mother angry most days
    I can’t remember her being happy or loving, just to many children to feed. Education was not encouraged, just make it through high school and find a job. I was afraid to have a friend
    I was inbarsed to bring a friend home. I had to much work after school anyway. I was lonely
    ugly and didn’t fit in with the Covina people.

  6. I want a friend. I’m 75 . My neighbor said my mobile home was dirty, old and oh you got
    it cheap didn’t you. I need a friend not a jerk. How does an old lady find a friend
    a non judging person? I have a heart not a real big bank acct. Not a shiny new car.
    I thought I had one, but she said ,I don’t have time for any new friends.. I have my family
    church, soccer friends. Is anyone willing to adopt me , no cost.

    1. I’ll be your email penpal if you want. I want someone to talk to who doesn’t care so much about material things. All anyone cares about is Facebook and looking good. I am young but I feel tired of talking to young ppl who only care about fast cars and cute selfies.

      1. B, I’ll talk to you if you want someone to talk to. I agree with you completely about people only being concerned with looking good and being so materialistic. Hmm, maybe that’s part of why I’m alone, I just don’t fit in with the way the world is nowadays. Anyway feel free to reach out.

    2. I’m so sorry that you’re neighbor treated you so unkind. Kindness I free and people really should be kind to others because you never know what someone is going through. I’ll gladly be your friend. I may be a little younger but that doesn’t matter to me.I remember growing up all the kids in my neighborhood thought I was weird because I’d rather sit on the porch with our elderly neighbor talking than playing with other kids. My home life was horrible and I was a depressed kid who didn’t want to exist but when I’d sit and talk with our neighbor everything felt OK in that moment. I always enjoyed hearing stories about the world she grew up in. People need to realize how important our elders really are and the things we can learn from them. Anyway feel free to reach out if you’d like.

  7. I do not agree with the research paper on loneliness. A person with a SAD childhood, not necessary has to experience loneliness later in life regardless of economic background in general. At one point, we have to take control of the situation and do something to change the outcome, because I deserve better.

    1. You make NO sense – of course they don’t necessarily have to become lonely – but these factors probably contribute – because of my personality trait and being an only child if my mother hadn’t pushed me to more social I wouldn’t have all the friends I have now and if it was so easy for people to « take control «  Psychiatrist wouldn’t be so busy!

      1. I Firmly agree with you people don’t have to be lonely just because of what they been through growing up I can say this because I was once that person

  8. A lot in this article makes sense to me. For the first ten years of my life I lived with my divorced mom. She was in college full time so we were very poor. I went to many different schools and didn’t have many friends. Cultivating relationships was impossible. We lived in the country with no kids around. It wasn’t until my teens that I moved in with dad and his wife and my half brother, then I started to open up. I’m now a fifty two year old man who never married and never raised kids of my own. I’m not physically very healthy either. If it weren’t for my dog I would likely be in a very dark place.

    1. Thank God for our companion animals. Friendship is the highest form of love, whether human or non-human. Love is of God, and God is love. The man-made relationships can be a minefield, and there is a reason about half of marriages fail. Engage in a relationship with God and His creatures. It is written, there with be no marrying in heaven, nor will there be loneliness. But there will be companion animals.

  9. A lot of this research makes sense to me. For the first ten years of my life I lived solely with my mother(divorced) and she was often studying in vet school. We were very poor as moms job was school, and I had very few friends. I went to many different schools and cultivating relationships was hard. I’m now fifty something and have never been married or raised kids. I’m also not in good shape physically. If it weren’t for my dog I would probably be in a very dark and lonely place.

  10. Do not agree with the research paper of loneliness. This entirely depends on the current situation and circumstances.

    1. You are commenting as if the scientists performing the study and summarizing that study in this paper are trying to say that “all” loneliness is caused by childhood circumstances etc. That’s not at all what is being reported here. In fact, the statistic is 7.50%, which is less than the ill-health %. Again, they name it as a “factor” and yes we have control over our actions, but when your brain is “chemically” in a different place than other people you cannot fathom how impossible it is to see what you personally see from the outside right now looking in. For people who are chemically trapped (brain misfiring) this “factor” only adds fuel to fire. Please stop reading articles as if anything is an “all or nothing” situation – the researchers did not intend for it to be amplified the way you and others are doing. It’s factual study data. Period. You don’t have to “agree” with it for it to be scientifically true. Just because you don’t agree with factual data doesn’t make the facts non-facts!

    2. Aniqa, I respectfully partially disagree with your statement “This entirely depends on the current situation and circumstances.” It somewhat depends on that but if your childhood was filled with abuse,trauma,abandonment etc then you develop trust issues and sometimes mental illnesses that cause you to be terrified of forming a bond with people. It is even more difficult for those of us who weren’t able to get the help we needed to work through our childhood traumas properly so it followed us into our adulthood and has an impact on our relationships with people.

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