The Demography of Loneliness at Older Ages

James M. Raymo and Jia Wang
Working paper no. 2020-02


This paper provides an empirical basis upon which to build research on the demography of loneliness at older ages. We proceed in two steps. In the first step, we use published life tables and data from the Health and Retirement Study (1998-2016) to calculate lonely life expectancy for Americans aged 55 and over. Using Sullivan’s method, we demonstrate pronounced differences in lonely life expectancy by race/ethnicity and educational attainment that correspond to well-established patterns of stratification in other measures of well-being. In the second step, we estimate models that decompose observed racial/ethnic, educational, and regional differences in three key health outcomes into the part that is accounted for by loneliness and the part that is due to other factors. We find that loneliness appears to be particularly relevant for understanding health disparities with respect to educational attainment, especially among women. Loneliness is less important for understanding racial/ethnic health disparities. Anticipated growth in scientific and policy emphasis on loneliness and the fundamental life changes that have accompanied the Covid-19 pandemic makes continued investment in the development of a demography of loneliness at older ages even more important.