Skip to main content Accessibility help

Awareness of risk factors for loneliness among third agers


Awareness of risk factors for loneliness is a prerequisite for preventive action. Many risk factors for loneliness have been identified. This paper focuses on two: poor health and widowhood. Preventive action by developing a satisfying social network requires time and effort and thus seems appropriate for people unexposed to risk factors, i.e. third agers and non-lonely persons. The third age is the period in old age after retirement, before people's social relationships deteriorate. This paper addresses three questions: Are older adults aware of poor health and widowhood as risk factors for loneliness? Are there differences in awareness between third and fourth agers? Are there differences in awareness between lonely and non-lonely older adults? After being introduced to four vignette persons, 920 respondents from the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam were asked whether they expected these persons to be lonely. Older adults, especially third agers, expected peers exposed to the risk factors to be lonely more often than peers who were unexposed. The results indicate that awareness of loneliness-provoking factors is high among third agers, which is a first step towards taking actions to avoid loneliness. Compared to lonely older adults, non-lonely ones expected peers to be lonely less often, suggesting the latter's lower awareness of the risk factors. The results provide evidence for policy makers and practitioners that combating loneliness might require early action.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Eric C. Schoenmakers, Department of Sociology, VU University Amsterdam, De Boelelaan 1081, 1081 HV Amsterdam, The Netherlands. E-mail:
Hide All
Abramson, A. and Silverstein, M. 2006. Images of Aging in America 2004. AARP and the University of Southern California, Washington DC.
Allport, G. W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Addison-Wesley, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Baltes, P. B. and Smith, J. 2003. New frontiers in the future of aging: from successful aging of the young old to the dilemmas of the fourth age. Gerontology, 49, 2, 123–35.
Brewer, M. B. 1999. The psychology of prejudice: ingroup love and outgroup hate? Journal of Social Issues, 55, 3, 429–44.
Cacioppo, J. T., Ernst, J. M., Burleson, M. H., McClintock, M. K., Malarkey, W. B., Hawkley, L. C., Kowalewski, R. B., Paulsen, A., Hobson, J. A., Hugdahl, K., Spiegel, D. and Berntson, G. G. 2000. Lonely traits and concomitant physiological processes: the MacArthur social neuroscience studies. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 35, 2/3, 143–54.
Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., Crawford, E. L., Ernst, J. M., Burleson, M. H., Kowalewski, R. B., Malarkey, W. B., Van Cauter, E. and Berntson, G. G. 2002. Loneliness and health: potential mechanisms. Psychosomatic Medicine, 64, 3, 407–17.
Cattan, M., White, M., Bond, J. and Learmouth, A. 2005. Preventing social isolation and loneliness among older people: a systematic review of health promotion interventions. Ageing & Society, 25, 1, 4167.
Clarke, P., Marshall, V., House, J. and Lantz, P. 2011. The social structuring of mental health over the adult life course: advancing theory in sociology of aging. Social Forces, 89, 4, 1287–314.
Cumming, E. and Henry, W. E. 1961. Growing Older: The Process of Disengagement. Basic Books, New York.
De Jong Gierveld, J. 1998. A review of loneliness: concept and definitions, determinants and consequences. Reviews in Clinical Gerontology, 8, 1, 7380.
De Jong Gierveld, J., Broese van Groenou, M., Hoogendoorn, A. W. and Smit, J. H. 2009. Quality of marriages in later life and emotional and social loneliness. Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 64, 4, S497506.
Dykstra, P. A. 2009. Older adult loneliness: myths and realities. European Journal of Ageing, 6, 2, 91100.
Dykstra, P. A. and De Jong Gierveld, J. 2004. Gender and marital-history differences in emotional and social loneliness among Dutch older adults. Canadian Journal on Aging, 23, 2, 141–55.
Findlay, R. A. 2003. Interventions to reduce social isolation amongst older people: where is the evidence? Ageing & Society, 23, 1, 647–58.
Fokkema, T., De Jong Gierveld, J. and Dykstra, P. A. 2012. Cross-national differences in older adult loneliness. The Journal of Psychology, 146, 1/2, 201–28.
Fokkema, T. and Van Tilburg, T. G. 2007. Zin en onzin van eenzaamheidsinterventies bij ouderen [Loneliness interventions among older adults: sense or nonsense?]. Tijdschrift voor Gerontologie en Geriatrie, 38, 4, 185203.
Gilleard, C. and Higgs, P. 2002. The third age: class, cohort or generation? Ageing & Society, 22, 3, 369–82.
Gilleard, C., Higgs, P., Hyde, M., Wiggins, R. D. and Blane, D. 2005. Class, cohort, and consumption: the British experience of the third age. Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 60, 6, S305–10.
Gornick, J. C., Munzi, T., Sierminska, E. and Smeeding, T. M. 2009. Income, assets, and poverty: older women in comparative perspective. Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, 30, 2/3, 272300.
Guiaux, M. 2010. Social adjustment to widowhood: changes in personal relationships and loneliness before and after partner loss. PhD dissertation, VU University, Amsterdam.
Heinrich, L. M. and Gullone, E. 2006. The clinical significance of loneliness: a literature review. Clinical Psychology Review, 26, 6, 695718.
Hilton, J. L. and Von Hippel, W. 1996. Stereotypes. Annual Review of Psychology, 47, 1, 237–71.
Huisman, M., Poppelaars, J., Van der Horst, M., Beekman, A. T., Brug, J., Van Tilburg, T. G. and Deeg, D. J. 2011. Cohort profile: the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam. International Journal of Epidemiology, 40, 4, 868–76.
Jones, W. H., Freemon, J. E. and Goswick, R. A. 1981. The persistence of loneliness: self and other determinants. Journal of Personality, 49, 1, 2748.
Jones, W. H., Hobbs, S. A. and Hockenbury, D. 1982. Loneliness and social skill deficits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 4, 682–9.
Jylhä, M. 2004. Old age and loneliness: cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses in the Tampere Longitudinal Study on Aging. Canadian Journal on Aging/La Revue Canadienne du Vieillissement, 23, 2, 157–68.
Kahn, R. L. and Antonucci, T. C. 1980. Convoys over the life course: attachment, roles and social support. In Baltes, P. B. and Brim, O. C. (eds), Life-span, Development, and Behavior. Academic Press, New York, 254–83.
Katz, S., Ford, A. B., Moskowitz, R. W., Jackson, B. A. and Jaffe, M. W. 1963. Studies of illness in the aged. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 185, 12, 914–9.
Kite, M. E. and Wagner, L. S. 2002. Attitudes toward older adults. In Nelson, T. D. (ed.), Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice Against Older Persons. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 129–61.
Komp, K. 2011. The political economy of the third age. In Carr, D. and Komp, K. (eds), Gerontology in the Era of the Third Age. Springer, New York, 5166.
Komp, K., Van Tilburg, T. G. and Broese van Groenou, M. 2009. The influence of the welfare state on the number of young old persons. Ageing & Society, 29, 4, 609–24.
Laslett, P. 1991. A Fresh Map of Life: The Emergence of the Third Age. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Levy, B. R. 2003. Mind matters: cognitive and physical effects of aging self-stereotypes. Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 58, 4, P203–11.
Macrae, N. C. and Bodenhausen, G. V. 2000. Social cognition: thinking categorically about others. Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 1, 93120.
Masi, C. M., Chen, H. Y., Hawkley, L. C. and Cacioppo, J. T. 2011. A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15, 3, 219–66.
Miller, R., Perlman, D. and Brehm, S. 2007. Intimate Relationships. Fourth edition, McGraw-Hill, New York.
Ó Luanaigh, C. and Lawlor, B. A. 2008. Loneliness and the health of older people. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 23, 12, 1213–21.
Oeppen, J. and Vaupel, J. W. 2002. Broken limits to life expectancy. Science, 296, 5570, 1029–31.
Peplau, L. A., Miceli, M. and Morasch, B. 1982. Loneliness and self-evaluation. In Peplau, L. A. and Perlman, D. (eds), Loneliness: A Sourcebook of Current Theory, Research, and Therapy. John Wiley, New York, 135–51.
Peplau, L. A. and Perlman, D. 1982. Perspectives on loneliness. In Peplau, L. A. and Perlman, D. (eds), Loneliness: A Sourcebook of Current Theory, Research, and Therapy. John Wiley, New York, 118.
Pinquart, M. 2003. Loneliness in married, widowed, divorced, and never-married older adults. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 20, 1, 3153.
Pinquart, M. and Sörensen, S. 2001. Influences on loneliness in older adults: a meta-analysis. Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 23, 4, 245–66.
Routasalo, P. and Pitkala, K. H. 2003. Loneliness among older people. Reviews in Clinical Gerontology, 13, 4, 303–11.
Savikko, N., Routasalo, P., Tilvis, R. S., Strandberg, T. E. and Pitkälä, K. H. 2005. Predictors and subjective causes of loneliness in an aged population. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 41, 3, 223–33.
Tajfel, H. and Turner, J. C. 1979. An integrative theory of social conflict. In Austin, W. and Worchel, S. (eds), The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Brooks/Cole, Monterey, California, 724.
Tornstam, L. 2007. Stereotypes of old people persist: a Swedish ‘facts on aging quiz’ in a 23-year comparative perspective. International Journal of Ageing and Later Life, 2, 1, 3359.
Torres, S. 2009. Vignette methodology and culture-relevance: lessons learned through a project on successful aging with Iranian immigrants to Sweden. Journal of Cross-cultural Gerontology, 24, 1, 93114.
Townsend, P. 1963. The Family Life of Old People. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, UK.
Tsai, F. F. and Reis, H. T. 2009. Perceptions by and of lonely people in social networks. Personal Relationships, 16, 2, 221–38.
Victor, C. R., Grenade, L. and Boldy, D. 2005. Measuring loneliness in later life: a comparison of differing measures. Reviews in Clinical Gerontology, 15, 6370.
Victor, C. R., Scambler, S. J., Bond, J. and Bowling, A. 2000. Being alone in later life: loneliness, social isolation and living alone. Reviews in Clinical Gerontology, 10, 4, 407–17.
Victor, C. R., Scambler, S. J., Shah, S., Cook, D. G., Harris, T., Rink, E. and De Wilde, S. 2002. Has loneliness amongst older people increased? An investigation into variations between cohorts. Ageing & Society, 22, 5, 585–97.
Walker, A. 1993. Age and Attitudes. Main Results from a Eurobarometer Survey. Commission of the European Communities, Brussels.
Weinstein, N. D., Sandman, P. F. D. and Blalock, S. J. 2002. The precaution adoption process model. In Glanz, B., Rimer, K. and Viswanath, K. (eds), Health Behavior and Health Education: Theory, Research, and Practice. Fourth edition, Jossey-Bass, San Fransisco, 121–43.
Whitbourne, S. K. and Sneed, J. R. 2002. The paradox of well-being, identity processes, and stereotype threat: ageism and its potential relationships to the self in later life. In Nelson, T. D. (ed.), Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice Against Older Persons. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 129–61.
Wiggins, R. D., Higgs, P. F. D., Hyde, M. and Blane, D. B. 2004. Quality of life in the third age: key predictors of the CASP-19 measure. Ageing & Society, 24, 5, 693708.
Wittenberg, M. T. and Reis, H. T. 1986. Loneliness, social skills, and social perception. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 12, 1, 121–30.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Ageing & Society
  • ISSN: 0144-686X
  • EISSN: 1469-1779
  • URL: /core/journals/ageing-and-society
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed