For some people, loneliness comes and goes like a ripple of small waves cresting on a beach — the waves come in, consuming you for a few minutes, or maybe a few hours, and go back out, leaving you feeling at peace again.
But for others, loneliness is more like a constant tidal wave that hits you over and over as you go about your day, leaving you feeling isolated and damaged. This feeling has a name: chronic loneliness, or "trait loneliness," an experience that The New York Times called an "epidemic" in 2016.
Now, a new survey conducted by U.S. health insurer Cigna found that people who are a part of Generation Z, also known as the "post-millennial generation," are some of the loneliest groups.
The study, which surveyed 20,000 Americans aged 18 years and older, reported that nearly 50 per cent of participants said they feel alone or left out "always" or "sometimes."
Those who fell into the group between the ages of 18 and 22 — part of Generation Z — reported feeling more lonely and left out than older generations, including xennials, and seniors. Millennials also reported feeling lonelier than older generations.
For the survey, researchers used a series of 20 statements from participants and a formula to calculate a loneliness score — which ranged from 20 to 80 — based on the answers provided by the participants. The total average national score of loneliness was 44, and the higher the score a participant received, the more lonely and socially isolated they were judged to be.
The study noted that there was no big difference between men and women when it came to loneliness scores.
Gen Zers scored a total average loneliness score of 48.3, which earned them the title of the loneliest generation, and researchers found that as people aged, their scores gradually dropped, with the least lonely group — adults aged 72 and up — scoring an average of 38.6.
Part of the reason why young people are feeling so lonely and isolated is because of lack of physical connections, the study noted, explaining that "those who engage in frequent meaningful in-person interactions have much lower loneliness scores than those who rarely interact with others face-to-face."
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"In-person interactions play an important role in alleviating one's feelings of loneliness, with those who experience infrequent in-person interactions typically much lonelier than those who engage in meaningful interactions regularly," the study continued. These in-person interactions could include spending quality time with family, or having a long conversation with a friend.
Participants in the survey who reported having daily in-person interactions were more likely to say their overall health was good, very good, or excellent (88 per cent), while only 50 per cent of those who said they never have in-person interactions reported the same level of health. Those who had more in-person interactions were also more likely to say their mental health was good, very good, or excellent, compared to those who had less in-person contact.
The survey comes a few months after the U.K. appointed a minister for loneliness, whose job is to help identity and support solutions for the country's "serious problem." According to a 2017 report, more than nine million people in the U.K. often or always feel lonely.
Canadians aren't faring much better.
According to Andrew Wister, director of the gerontology research centre at Simon Fraser University in B.C., studies have found that one in five Canadians experience loneliness or social isolation.
And Dr. Robin Lennox, a family physician and assistant professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., told Radio Canada International (RCI) that "more and more community surveys are finding anywhere between 25 and 30 per cent of Canadians across various age groups are reporting persistent loneliness or social isolation."
According to Lennox, there are serious health risks associated with loneliness and social isolation, death being one of them.
"The one that's most stark is the fact that we are actually seeing higher ... rates of death — among those who report higher rates of loneliness and social isolation," she told RCI.
"And we're also seeing higher rates of other illnesses such as cognitive decline, depression, anxiety, substance use and addiction as well as more difficulty controlling issues such as high blood pressure and diabetes — so, really wide-ranging effects on health."
A 2017 Canadian report noted that people who live alone or in remote communities, who are in LGBTQ communities, who have disabilities, and who experience poverty are higher risk groups, reports the Globe and Mail.
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