Skip to main content Accessibility help

An investigation into the patterns of loneliness and loss in the oldest old – Newcastle 85+ Study

  • KATIE BRITTAIN (a1) (a2), ANDREW KINGSTON (a1) (a2), KAREN DAVIES (a1) (a2), JOANNA COLLERTON (a1) (a2), LOUISE A. ROBINSON (a1) (a2), THOMAS B. L. KIRKWOOD (a2) (a3), JOHN BOND (a1) (a2) and CAROL JAGGER (a1) (a2)...


Old age is often characterised as being associated with neglect, isolation and loneliness, not least since established risks factors for loneliness include widowhood, living alone, depression and being female. Cross-sectional data have challenged the notion that loneliness is especially an old-age phenomenon but longitudinal data on loneliness is scarce. Moreover, an under-represented group in prior studies are the oldest old, those aged 85 years and more. This paper addresses these knowledge gaps using data from the Newcastle 85+ Study, a large population-based cohort aged 85 years at first interview with follow-up interviews at 18 months and three years. At baseline over half (55%) reported being always or often alone, and 41 per cent reported feeling more lonely than ten years previously, although only 2 per cent reported always feeling lonely. Women spent more time alone than men and reported more loneliness both currently and compared to the past. Length of widowhood was a key factor, with those recently widowed having twice the risk of feeling lonely and those widowed for five or more years having a lower risk of reporting increased loneliness. Overall, the findings show that loneliness is a minority experience in the oldest old but is strongly driven by length of widowhood, challenging the notion that loneliness in later life is a static experience.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Katie Brittain, Institute of Health and Society, Newcastle University, Baddiley-Clark Building, Richardson Road, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 4AX, UK. E-mail:


Hide All
Adams, K. B., Sanders, S. and Auth, E. A. 2004. Loneliness and depression in independent living retirement communities: risk and resilience factors. Aging and Mental Health, 8, 6, 475–85.
Alpass, F. M. and Neville, S. 2003. Loneliness, health and depression in older males. Aging and Mental Health , 7, 3, 212–6.
Arber, S. and Ginn, J. 1994. Women and aging. Reviews in Clinical Gerontology, 4, 4, 349–58.
Aylaz, R., Aktürk, Ü., Erci, B., Öztürk, H. and Aslan, H. 2012. Relationship between depression and loneliness in elderly and examination of influential factors. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 55, 3, 548–54.
Beach, B. and Bamford, S. M. 2014. Isolation: The Emerging Crisis for Older Men. The International Longevity Centre – UK, London.
Beaumont, J. 2013. Measuring National Well-being – Older People and Loneliness, 2013. Available online at [Accessed 5 February 2014].
Bennett, K. M. 1996. A longitudinal study of wellbeing in widowed women. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 11, 1, 1005–10.
Bennett, K. M. 1998. Longitudinal changes in mental and physical health among recently widowed men. Mortality, 3, 3, 265–74.
Bennett, K. M. 2005. Psychological wellbeing in later life: the longitudinal effects of marriage, widowhood and marital status change. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 20, 3, 280–4.
Boss, L., Kang, D.-H. and Branson, S. 2015. Loneliness and cognitive function in the older adult: a systematic review. International Psychogeriatrics, 27, 4, 541–53.
Bowling, A. 1995. The most important things in life. International Journal of Health Sciences, 6, 4, 160–75.
Browne, W. J. 2009. MCMC Estimation in MLwiN v2.1. Centre for Multilevel Modelling, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK.
Brummett, B. H., Barefoot, J. C., Siegler, I. C., Clapp-Channing, N. E., Lytle, B. L. and Bosworth, H. B. 2001. Characteristics of socially isolated patients with coronary artery disease who are at elevated risk for mortality. Psychosomatic Medicine, 63, 2, 267–72.
Cacioppo, J. T. and Hawkley, L. C. 2009. Perceived social isolation and cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13, 10, 447–54.
Cacioppo, J. T., Hughes, M. E., Waite, L. J., Hawkley, L. C. and Thisted, R. A. 2006. Loneliness as a specific risk factor for depressive symptoms: cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses. Psychology and Aging, 21, 1, 140151.
Collerton, J., Barrass, K., Bond, J., Eccles, M., Jagger, C., James, O. and Kirkwood, T. 2007. The Newcastle 85+ Study: biological, clinical and psychosocial factors associated with health ageing: study protocol. BMC Geriatrics, 7, 14.
Collerton, J., Davies, K., Jagger, C., Kingston, A., Bond, J., Eccles, M. P. and Kirkwood, T. 2009. Health and disease in 85 year olds: baseline findings from the Newcastle 85+ cohort study. British Medical Journal, 399, part b4904, 111.
Davies, K., Collerton, J. C., Jagger, C., Bond, J., Barker, S. A. H., Edwards, J. and Robinson, A. L. 2010. Engaging the oldest old in research: lessons from the Newcastle 85+ study. BMC Geriatrics, 10, 64.
Davies, K., Kingston, A., Robinson, A. L., Hughes, J., Hunt, J. M., Barker, S. A. H., Edwards, J., Collerton, J., Jagger, C. and Kirkwood, T. B. L. 2014. Improving retention of very old participants in longitudinal research: experiences from the Newcastle 85+ Study. PLoS ONE, 910, e108370.
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. and van Tilburg, T. 1987. The partner as source of social support in problem and non-problem situations. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 2, 2, 191200.
Dykstra, P. A., Van Tilburg, T. G. and de Jong Gierveld, J. 2005. Changes in older adult loneliness results from a seven-year longitudinal study. Research on Aging, 27, 6, 725–47.
Greenfield, E. A. and Russell, D. I. 2011. Identifying living arrangements that heighten risk for loneliness in later life: evidence from the U.S. National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project. Journal of Applied Gerontology, 30, 524–34.
Heikkinen, R.-L. and Kauppinen, M. 2011. Mental well-being: a 16-year follow-up among older residents in Jyväskylä. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 52, 1, 33–9.
Heylen, L. 2010. The older, the lonelier? Risk factors for social loneliness in old age. Ageing & Society, 30, 7, 1177–96.
Hobbs, F. B. and Damon, B. L. 1996. 65+ in the United States. US Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Special Studies, P23-190, US Government Printing Office, Washington DC.
Hockey, J., Penhale, B. and Sibley, D. 2001. Landscapes of loss: spaces of memory, times of bereavement. Ageing & Society, 21, 6, 739–57.
Iecovich, E., Jacobs, J. M. and Stessman, J. 2011. Loneliness, social networks, and mortality: 18 years of follow-up. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 72, 3, 243–63.
Jagger, C. and Sutton, C. J. 1991. Death after marital bereavement – is the risk increased? Statistics in Medicine, 10, 3, 395404.
Jirovec, R. L., Jirovec, M. M. and Bosse, R. 1984. Environmental determinants of neighbourhood satisfaction among urban elderly men. The Gerontologist, 24, 3, 261–5.
Jylhä, M. 2004. Old age and loneliness: cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses in the Tampere Longitudinal Study on Aging. Canadian Journal on Aging/Revue canadienne du vieillissement, 23, special issue 2, 157–68.
Katz, S., Ford, A., Moskowitz, R., Jackson, B. and Jaffe, M. 1963. Studies of illness in the aged: the index of ADL, a standardised measure of biological and psychosocial function. Journal of the American Medical Association, 185, 12, 914–9.
Khaleeli, H. 2013. Britain's loneliness epidemic. The Guardian, 22 January. Available online at [Accessed 5 February 2014].
Kingston, A., Collerton, J., Davies, K., Bond, J., Robinson, L. and Jagger, C. 2012. Losing the ability in activities of daily living in the oldest old: a hierarchic disability scale from the Newcastle 85+ Study. PLoS One, 7, 2, e31665.
Kingston, A., Davies, K., Collerton, J., Robinson, L., Duncan, R., Bond, J., Kirkwood, T. B. L. and Jagger, C. 2015. The enduring effect of education – socioeconomic differences in disability trajectories from age 85 years in the Newcastle 85+ study. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 60, 3, 405–11.
Lawton, M. and Brody, E. 1969. Assessment of older people: self maintaining and instrumental activities of daily living. Gerontologist, 9, 179–86.
Luanaigh, C. O. and Lawlor, B. A. 2008. Loneliness and the health of older people. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 23, 12, 1213–21.
Luo, Y., Hawkley, L. C., Waite, L. J. and Cacioppo, J. T. 2012. Loneliness, health, and mortality in old age: a national longitudinal study. Social Science and Medicine, 74, 6, 907–14.
Molloy, D. W. and Standish, T. I. M. 1997. Mental status and neuropsychological assessment: a guide to the standardized mini-mental state examination. International Psychogeriatrics, 9, 1, 8794.
Murray, J. 2013. The lonely generation: late-life divorce. Husbands lost to dementia. Or marriages that are just empty shells. Mail Online, 19 July. Available online at [Accessed 5 February 2014].
Noble, M., Wright, G., Dibben, C., Smith, G. A. N., McLennan, D., Anttila, C. and Lloyd, M. 2007. The English Indices of Deprivation 2004 Revised. Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, London.
Nummela, O., Seppänen, M. and Uutela, A. 2011. The effect of loneliness and change in loneliness on self-rated health SRH: a longitudinal study among aging people. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 53, 2, 163–7.
Nyqvist, F., Forsman, A. K., Giuntoli, G. and Cattan, M. 2013. Social capital as a resource for mental well-being in older people: a systematic review. Aging and Mental Health, 17, 4, 394410.
Office for National Statistics 2014. Disability-free Life Expectancy by Upper Tier Local Authority: England 2009–11 and Comparison with 2006–08. Available online at [Accessed 5 December 2014].
Parkes, C. M. 1972. Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life. Tavistock, London.
Patterson, A. C. and Veenstra, G. 2010. Loneliness and risk of mortality: a longitudinal investigation in Alameda County, California. Social Science and Medicine, 71, 1, 181–6.
Peace, S., Kellaher, L. and Holland, C. 2006. Environment and Identity in Later Life. Open University Press, Maidenhead, UK.
Penninx, B., Van Tilburg, T., Kriegsman, D., Deeg, D., Boeke, A. and Van Euk, J. 1997. Effects of social support and personal coping resources on mortality in older age: the longitudinal aging study Amsterdam. American Journal of Epidemiology, 146, 6, 510–9.
Perissinotto, C. M., Cenzer, I. S. and Covinsky, K. E. 2012. Loneliness in older persons: a predictor of functional decline and death. Archives of Internal Medicine, 172, 14, 1078–83.
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 Sorensen, S. 2001. Influences on loneliness in older adults: a meta-analysis. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 23, 4, 245–66.
Rasbash, J., Charlton, C., Browne, W. J., Healy, M. and Cameron, B. 2009. MLwiN Version 2.1. Centre for Multilevel Modelling, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK.
Routasalo, P. and Pitkälä, K. H. 2003. Loneliness among older people. Reviews in Clinical Gerontology, 13, 4, 303–11.
Routasalo, P. E., Savikko, N., Tilvis, R. S., Strandberg, T. E. and Pitkälä, K. H. 2006. Social contacts and their relationship to loneliness among aged people – a population-based study. Gerontology, 52, 3, 181–7.
Russell, D. 1982. The measurement of loneliness. In Peplau, L. A. and Perlman, D. (eds), Loneliness: A Sourcebook of Current Theory, Research, and Therapy. Wiley, New York, 81104.
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.
Shankar, A., Hamer, M., McMunn, A. and Steptoe, A. 2013. Social isolation and loneliness: relationships with cognitive function during 4 years of follow-up in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Psychosomatic Medicine, 75, 2, 161–70.
Sheikh, J. I. and Yesavage, J. A. 1986. Geriatric Depression Scale GDS: recent findings and development of a shorter version. In Brink, L. T. (ed.), Clinical Gerontology: A Guide to Assessment and Intervention. Haworth Press, New York, 165174.
Shiovitz-Ezra, S. and Ayalon, L. 2010. Situational versus chronic loneliness as risk factors for all-cause mortality. International Psychogeriatrics, 22, 3, 455–62.
StataCorp. 2011. Stata Statistical Software: Release 12. StataCorp., College Station, Texas.
Stek, M. L., Vinkers, D. J., Gussekloo, J., Beekman, A. T., van der Mast, R. C. and Westendorp, R. G. 2005. Is depression in old age fatal only when people feel lonely? American Journal of Psychiatry, 162, 1, 178–80.
Stephens, C., Alpass, F., Towers, A. and Stevenson, B. 2011. The effects of types of social networks, perceived social support, and loneliness on the health of older people accounting for the social context. Journal of Aging and Health, 23, 6, 887911.
Steptoe, A., Shankar, A., Demakakos, P. and Wardle, J. 2013. Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110, 15, 5797–807.
Tilvis, R. S., Kähönen-Väre, M. H., Jolkkonen, J., Valvanne, J., Pitkala, K. H. and Strandberg, T. E. 2004. Predictors of cognitive decline and mortality of aged people over a 10-year period. Journals of Gerontology: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 59A, 3, M26874.
Tilvis, R. S., Laitala, V., Routasalo, P. E. and Pitkälä, K. H. 2011. Suffering from loneliness indicates significant mortality risk of older people. Journal of Aging Research, 2011, 534781. doi:10.4061/2011/534781.
Tilvis, R. S., Routasalo, P., Karppinen, H., Strandberg, T. E., Kautiainen, H. and Pitkala, K. H. 2012. Social isolation, social activity and loneliness as survival indicators in old age; a nationwide survey with a 7-year follow-up. European Geriatric Medicine, 3, 1, 1822.
Tsai, H. H. and Tsai, Y. F. 2011. Changes in depressive symptoms, social support, and loneliness over 1 year after a minimum 3-month videoconference program for older nursing home residents. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 13, 4, c93.
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division 2009. World Population Ageing: 2009. ESA/P/WP/212. Available online at [Accessed 6 November 2013].
Victor, C. R. and Bowling, A. 2012. A longitudinal analysis of loneliness among older people in Great Britain. Journal of Psychology, 146, 3, 313–31.
Victor, C. R., Scambler, S. J. and Bond, J. 2009. The Social World of Older People. Understanding Loneliness and Social Isolation in Later Life. Open University Press, Maidenhead, UK.
Victor, C., 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., Bond, J. and Bowling, A. 2002. Loneliness in later life: preliminary findings from the Growing Older project. Quality in Ageing, 3, 1, 3441.
Victor, C. R., Scambler, S. J., Bowling, A. N. N. and Bond, J. 2005. The prevalence of, and risk factors for, loneliness in later life: a survey of older people in Great Britain. Ageing & Society, 25, 3, 357–75.
Wenger, G. C. and Burholt, V. 2004. Changes in levels of social isolation and loneliness among older people in a rural area: a twenty-year longitudinal study. Canadian Journal on Aging, 23, 2, 115–27.
Wenger, G. C., Davies, R., Shahtahmasebi, S. and Scott, A. 1996. Social isolation and loneliness in old age: review and model refinement. Ageing & Society, 16, 3, 333–58.
Wilson, R. S., Krueger, K. R., Arnold, S. E., Schneider, J. A., Kelly, J. F., Barnes, L. L. and Bennett, D. A. 2007. Loneliness and risk of Alzheimer disease. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64, 2, 234–40.



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