Loneliness in young adults linked to poor sleep quality

May 17, 2017, King's College London
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Researchers from King's College London have found a link between loneliness and poor sleep quality in a study of more than 2,000 British young adults.

Lonelier people were 24 per cent more likely to feel tired and have difficulty concentrating during the day, according to the study published today in Psychological Medicine.

Loneliness is defined by researchers as a distressing feeling that people experience when they perceive their social relationships to be inadequate. This is distinct from the concept of social isolation, as people can be socially isolated without feeling lonely, or feel lonely despite being surrounded by many people.

While the effect of being lonely is well documented among the elderly, it is a common problem for young people too—the Mental Health Foundation reports that is most frequent between the ages of 18-34. Despite this, little is known about health problems that are associated with loneliness among , or the impact on sleep.

The researchers from King's College London sampled data from the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study, a cohort of 2,232 18-19 year-old twins born in England and Wales. They measured loneliness by scoring responses to four questions: 'How often do you feel that you lack companionship?', 'How often do you feel left out?', 'How often do you feel isolated from others?' and 'How often do you feel alone?'

They also measured sleep quality in the past month, including the time it takes to fall asleep, and , as well as daytime dysfunction such as staying awake during the day.

Overall 25-30 per cent of the sample reported feeling lonely sometimes, with a further five per cent reporting frequent feelings of loneliness. The researchers found that the association between loneliness and sleep quality remained even after they accounted for symptoms of such as depression and anxiety, which are commonly associated with and feeling lonely.

One of the proposed reasons for restless sleep in lonely individuals is the possibility they feel less safe, so the researchers examined the impact of past exposure to violence, including crime, sexual abuse, child maltreatment and violent abuse by family members or peers. The association between loneliness and poor sleep quality was almost 70 per cent stronger among those exposed to the most severe forms of violence. The study authors suggest a number of biological processes which may explain the association between loneliness and sleep , including a heightened biological stress response. Previous research suggests that loneliness is associated with changes in circulating cortisol, indicating elevated activation of the system. Physiological arousal resulting from this process may play a role in the disrupted sleep of lonely individuals.

Professor Louise Arseneault from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King's College London, said: 'Diminished is one of the many ways in which loneliness gets under the skin, and our findings underscore the importance of early therapeutic approaches to target the negative thoughts and perceptions that can make loneliness a vicious cycle.'

Professor Arseneault added: 'Many of the young people in our study are currently at university, living away from home for the first time, which can compound feelings of loneliness. It is therefore important that they receive appropriate support to address these before they turn into severe mental health problems.'

Timothy Matthews from the IoPPN at King's College London, added: 'We also found that past exposure to violence exacerbated the association between loneliness and poor sleep, which is consistent with the suggestion that sleep problems in lonely individuals are related to feeling unsafe. This makes sense as sleep is a state in which it is impossible to be vigilant for one's safety, so feeling isolated from others could make it more difficult to sleep restfully, and even more so for individuals who have been exposed to violence in the past. It is therefore important to recognise that loneliness may interact with pre-existing vulnerabilities in some people, and that these individuals should receive tailored support.'

Explore further: How lonely you are may impact how well you sleep, research shows

Related Stories

How lonely you are may impact how well you sleep, research shows

November 1, 2011
Loneliness is not only heartbreaking, it breaks up a normal night's sleep, a new study shows. Researchers say compromised sleep may be one pathway by which feelings of loneliness adversely affect our health.

Cold symptoms feel worse when people feel lonely

March 30, 2017
Suffering through a cold is annoying enough, but if you're lonely, you're likely to feel even worse, according to Rice University researchers.

Why it's good to be lonely this Valentine's Day

February 13, 2014
Whilst it may seem that there are no positives to draw from feeling lonely, several authors have shown that this is not the case.

Do these genes make me lonely? Study finds loneliness is a heritable trait

September 20, 2016
Loneliness is linked to poor physical and mental health, and is an even more accurate predictor of early death than obesity. To better understand who is at risk, researchers at University of California San Diego School of ...

Loneliness in midlife—the risk of becoming lonely is not limited to old age

May 12, 2016
Maike Luhmann from the University of Cologne and Louise C. Hawkley from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago were able to find out in which phases of their lives people are most at risk of becoming ...

Why addressing loneliness in children can prevent a lifetime of loneliness in adults

April 14, 2017
The Republicans' controversial effort to repeal the perhaps optimistically named Affordable Care Act because of rising premiums may be fatally stalled. But there are other ways to rein in health care costs that have been ...

Recommended for you

New research suggests possible link between sudden infant death syndrome and air pollution

April 20, 2018
A study led by the University of Birmingham suggests a possible association between exposure to certain pollutants and an increased risk of so-called 'cot death'.

For heavy lifting, use exoskeletons with caution

April 20, 2018
You can wear an exoskeleton, but it won't turn you into a superhero.

Male contraceptive compound stops sperm without affecting hormones

April 20, 2018
A new study published today in the journal PLOS ONE details how a compound called EP055 binds to sperm proteins to significantly slow the overall mobility of the sperm without affecting hormones, making EP055 a potential ...

A dose of empathy may support patients in pain

April 20, 2018
Research published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine suggests that empathic, positive messages from doctors may be of small benefit to patients suffering from pain, and improve their satisfaction about the care ...

New device to help patients with rare disease access life-saving treatment

April 19, 2018
Patients with a rare medical condition can receive life-saving treatment at the touch of a button thanks to a new device developed by scientists.

Age affects how we predict and respond to stress at home

April 19, 2018
A recent study finds that older adults are better than younger adults at anticipating stressful events at home - but older adults are not as good at using those predictions to reduce the adverse impacts of the stress.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.