• Alaka BasuAlaka Basu
      Alaka M. Basu is Professor, Development Sociology, Cornell University, and a member of the Guttmacher-Lancet Commission on Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Health
      Alessandro RosinaAlessandro Rosina
      Professor of Demography and Director, Center for Applied Statistics in Business and Economics, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore
      Andrea BrandoliniAndrea Brandolini
      Head of Statistical Analysis Directorate, Bank of Italy
      Bruno MasquelierBruno Masquelier
      Professor of Demography, University of Louvain, Belgium
      Cheikh MbackéCheikh Mbacké
      Associate Professor, Sociology department, Laval University
      Cinzia ContiCinzia Conti
      Researcher at Istat, Head of Unit on Foreign Presence and Social Dynamics
      Corrado BonifaziCorrado Bonifazi
      Director of the Institute for Research on Population and Social Policies, National Research Council, Rome Italy
      Ernestina CoastErnestina Coast
      Associate Professor of Population Studies, London School of Economics
      Wang FengFeng Wang
      Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, USA, and Professor at Fudan University, Shanghai, China fwang(at)
      Francesco BillariFrancesco Billari
      Professor of Sociology and Demography, University of Oxford
      Gilles PisonGilles Pison
      Professor at Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle and Director of Research at the French National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) (Paris)
      Gustavo De SantisGustavo De Santis
      Professor of Demography, University of Florence, Italy
      Jacques VallinJacques Vallin
      Emeritus Research Director at INED, Paris; Honorary President of IUSSP
      John KnodelJohn Knodel
      Research Professor Emeritus, Population Studies Center, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan (USA) and International staff, College of Populations Studies, Chulalongkorn University (Thailand)
      Letizia MencariniLetizia Mencarini
      Associate professor of Demography, Bocconi University - Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics and Public Policy & Collegio Carlo Alberto; P.I. ERC P.I. ERC project n. 313617 (2013-2018) SWELLFER
      Letizia TanturriLetizia Tanturri
      Associate Professor of Demography, University of Padova, Italy
      Massimo livi BacciMassimo livi Bacci
      Emeritus Professor of Demography, University of Florence, Italy
      Monica Das GuptaMonica Das Gupta
      Research Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland, USA
      Paula Miranda-RibeiroPaula Miranda-Ribeiro
      Professor, Demography Department and Cedeplar, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil.
      Peter McDonaldPeter McDonald
      Professor of Demography in the Australian National University. Honorary President of IUSSP and winner of the Irene B. Taeuber Award
      Roberto ImpicciatoreRoberto Impicciatore
      Università di Bologna.
      Salvatore StrozzaSalvatore Strozza
      Professor of Demography, University Federico II, Naples (Italy)
      Stefano MolinaStefano Molina
      Senior Program Officer, Giovanni Agnelli Foundation, Italy
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    • N-IUSSP is a new IUSSP news magazine, which will disseminate scientific findings from demographic research carried out all over the world. The practical implications of current trends, the risks and potentialities of emerging situations, the pros and cons of specific laws are discussed in rigorous but plain language.

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Loneliness among seniors in Europe. Far higher risk in the East
La solitude des seniors en Europe : un risque bien plus élevé à l’Est

Thomas Hansen, Britt Slagsvold

Loneliness is widely perceived as a problem of old age, as part of “normal” aging. Research shows, however, that only 5 to 15% of adults aged 60–80 report frequent feelings of loneliness (Dykstra 2009). Yet this literature is based primarily on data from Western countries with advanced welfare systems. Age-related increases in loneliness may be stronger and occur earlier in countries with poorer living conditions and welfare provision.

Available findings suggest large cross-country variations. A North-South divide has been shown, with far higher loneliness in the South (Fokkema et al. 2012). Little is known, however, about the risk of late-life loneliness in Eastern Europe, where the challenges in caring for the material, social, and health needs of the older populations are severe (EU & WHO 2002). These countries have limited health service provision, overall population health is relatively poor, and poverty rates are high. In a recent study we explored cross-country variation in late-life loneliness using data from the Generations and Gender Survey (Hansen & Slagsvold 2016). Analyses comprise 33,832 Europeans aged 60–80 from 11 countries, including several Eastern European countries.

Loneliness can be considered as the outcome of the subjective and negative evaluation of the gap between an individual’s desired and actual quantity and quality of social relationships (de Jong-Gierveld et al. 2006). A six-item short version of the de Jong-Gierveld Scale is used to measure loneliness, but we employ a different method of calculating loneliness scores than in prior work. We argue that the cutoff recommended by the scale developers is rather low and lumps together mild and more severe levels of loneliness (Hansen & Slagsvold 2016). We use a higher cutoff, so that “lonely” individuals report a quite serious level of loneliness.

East-West divide in late-life loneliness

The prevalence of male loneliness in the West is relatively low and stable (5-10%) across age groups (Figure 1). schermata-2016-10-03-alle-08-38-11In the East, by contrast, rates increase from about 10-15% among the youngest to 25-40% among the oldest individuals. Contrasts are even more pronounced for women (Figure 2): rates are stable at 5-15% in the West, but in the East they increase from around 10–20% to 30-50% as age increases. schermata-2016-10-03-alle-08-38-21Gender differences are evident primarily in the East, with rates that are 5-15 percentage points higher for women than for men.
Why are Eastern seniors so vulnerable to loneliness? Part of the answer lies in their poorer socioeconomic status and health, and their more limited access to support. Similarly, the pronounced risk of loneliness faced by Eastern European women can be attributed to the fact that a relatively high number of them are aging without a partner (because of markedly lower life expectancy among men), and have health and financial problems. The social networks of older Eastern Europeans may also suffer the effects of decreasing fertility and increasing out-migration of younger adults (OECD 2012). Many older adults thus have no children or grandchildren nearby and when government provision falls short, they may lack resources to help them combat loneliness.

The role of the welfare state

It appears that in countries with generous social security schemes, where per capita public expenditure on health and welfare services is among the highest in Europe, people enjoy better social and psychological well-being than in countries where the state provides less. Generous welfare states may promote better conditions for social integration and self-reliance, and thus facilitate social participation, in particular among older adults with health limitations or low socioeconomic resources (Hvinden 2010). In many of the former socialist countries, formal support structures are largely absent (EU & WHO 2002). Hence, older people in Eastern Europe may be particularly prone to loneliness because of inequalities in health, social integration, and socioeconomic resources, which in turn may be driven by macro-level socioeconomic and welfare conditions.

Cultural factors

The fact that wide cross-country heterogeneity in loneliness remains after controlling for all of the variables mentioned above suggests that a cultural perspective is needed in order to understand this variation. Loneliness occurs when the quality of one’s social relationships falls short of the expected or desired quality. People in the familistic and collectivistic Southern and Eastern European countries, because of high expectations of strong family and community ties, may have a lower threshold for experiencing loneliness than other Europeans. A low loneliness threshold may make matters worse for seniors in countries with high rates of widowhood, decreasing fertility rates, and increasing out-migration. Moreover, it may be that political upheavals, economic insecurity, and greater socioeconomic inequalities have eroded feelings of trust and social integration, thereby increasing the risk of loneliness among older adults in Eastern Europe (Rokach et al. 2001). In sum, the combination of a low loneliness threshold and negative changes in social integration may help to explain high levels of loneliness in Sothern and Eastern European countries.

Concluding remarks          

Gerontologists have long since debunked the myth that loneliness is an inherent characteristic of old age. However, in some Eastern European countries, so far under-researched in the literature on loneliness, between a third and a half of the older population report feeling lonely, women especially. Conversely, loneliness is a comparatively rare experience in the West. Findings attest to and reflect the unequal conditions of aging across Europe and indicate serious deficits in late-life quality of life in some European countries.

The prevention and reduction of loneliness have ramifications beyond the social realm. Loneliness appears to hasten physiological decline and increase the use of health and care services (Hawkley & Cacioppo 2007), so alleviating loneliness is important for both individuals and societies. The combination of economic and social strain and an aging population poses a serious potential threat to the well-being of large numbers of older people, in Eastern European countries especially.


de Jong-Gierveld, J., van Tilburg, T., & Dykstra, P. A. (2006). Loneliness and social isolation. In A. Vangelisti and D. Perlman (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of personal relationships (pp. 285-500). Cambridge: University Press.

Dykstra, P. A. (2009). Older adult loneliness: myths and realities. European Journal of Ageing, 6(2), 91-100.

EU, WHO (2002). Health status overview for countries of central and eastern Europe that are candidates for accession to the European Union. Copenhagen: WHO.

Fokkema T., de Jong-Gierveld J., & Dykstra P. A. (2012). Cross-National Differences in Older Adult Loneliness. Journal of Psychology, 146, 201-28.

Hansen T. & Slagsvold, B. (2016). Late-life loneliness in 11 European countries: Results from the Generations and Gender Survey. Social Indicators Research, 124:1-20.

Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2007). Aging and loneliness: Downhill quickly? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(4), 187-191.

Hvinden, B. (2010). The Nordic welfare model and the challenge of globalisation. In M. Böss (Ed.), The Nation State in Transformation: Economic Globalisation, Institutional Mediation and Political Values (pp. 292-314). Århus: University Press.

OECD (2012). International migration outlook. OECD Publishing.

Rokach, A., Orzeck, T., Cripps, J., Lackovic-Grgin, K., & Penezic, Z. (2001). The effects of culture on the meaning of loneliness. Social Indicators Research, 53(1), 17-31.




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