Analysing a recent ONS report on loneliness

This blog was contributed by Dr. Elizabeth Webb, Senior Research Manager at Age UK, and looks at a recent report from the Office for National Statistics on loneliness. 

Key statistics:

  • People in poor health are 1.9 times more likely to report feeling lonely than those in good health
  • People who are widow(er)s are 3.6 times more likely to be lonely than those who are married.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently published a report on the characteristics linked with feeling lonely, which found that while people of all ages can be lonely, there are some groups particularly at risk – and there is a strong association with poor health and being widowed.

The report showed that younger people were more likely than older people to say they had felt lonely, however, age wasn’t the only characteristic linked to being lonely. Other groups who were more likely to have felt lonely were women, people not living with a partner, people in worse health and those who did not feel a sense of belonging in their neighbourhood.

The report included two sets of some more complex statistical analyses, the first of which looked at separating the effects of each of these key characteristics on loneliness. This enables us to answer questions such as ‘Taking into account the relationship of loneliness with age, sex and other characteristics, what is the independent association of marital status with loneliness?’

This analysis showed that age is independently associated with loneliness, and that younger people are at increased risk: those who are 16-24 are 2.7 times more likely to report being lonely than those aged 75+, for instance.* However, many other characteristics, several of which are more common amongst older people, are also strongly and independently associated with feeling lonely. For instance, people in poor health are 1.9 times more likely to report feeling lonely, and those who are widow(er)s are 3.6 times more likely to be lonely than those who are married.

Another analysis looked at the types of people who are lonely, and the characteristics they share. The findings here reinforced those in the previous analysis. Three groups of lonely people were identified, including one group of widowed older people who lived alone and were in poor health. In the least lonely group there were also many older people, although these people lived with a partner and had good health.

The ONS analyses reflect our understanding, at Age UK, that loneliness is not an inevitability of older age. People of all ages can feel lonely, and there are particular things which commonly happen in older age which can put people at higher risk of feeling lonely, for instance losing a partner or experiencing worsening health. The ONS findings can therefore help us to think about who in our communities might be in particular need of support, to help us to tackle loneliness.

*You may have seen it reported in the press that ‘those aged 75 or over are 63 times less likely to report loneliness than those aged 16-24 years.’ This is an error, and should have stated that ‘those aged 75 or over are 63% less likely to report loneliness than those aged 16-24 years.’ Another way of putting this is that ‘those aged 16-24 were 2.7 times more likely to report being lonely than those aged 75 and over.’

Footnote on data and analysis: The report discussed analyses of data on more than 10,000 people aged 16 and older in England, collected in the Communities Life Survey in 2016-17. The survey asked people about a number of aspects of their lives, with a focus on community, and also asked about loneliness. People were asked ‘How often do you feel lonely?’ and could respond with ‘often/always’, ‘sometimes’, ‘occasionally’, ‘hardly ever’ or ‘never’. For the more complex statistical analyses, the researchers divided people into those who reported being lonely ‘occasionally’, ‘sometimes’ and ‘often/always’, and those who reported feeling lonely ‘hardly ever’ and ‘never’.

Read the full report from the Office for National Statistics, “Loneliness – What characteristics and circumstances are associated with feeling lonely?”

Read more about Age UK’s loneliness research and resources 

Author: Age UK

Age UK is dedicated to helping everyone make the most of later life. In the UK we help more than 7 million older people each year by providing advice, combating loneliness and enabling independence. Locally, we work as part of a network of independent charities which includes Age UK, Age Cymru, Age NI and Age Scotland and over 150 local Age UK partners in England and Wales.

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