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New Report Finds Negative Financial Shock Increases Loneliness in Older Adults

Press Release

Researchers excluded possible explanations due to changes in chronic health conditions and functional limitations, religious service attendance, and social relationship strain.

CHICAGO, May 18, 2020 – Older adults suffering a financial shock, defined as a loss of income, experienced elevated levels of loneliness, but this effect was decreased during the Great Recession, according to a new report, “Negative financial shock increases loneliness in older adults, 2006-2016: Reduced effect during the Great Recession (2008–2010),” conducted by researchers at NORC at the University of Chicago, University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the University of Pennsylvania. Low income and wealth are associated with loneliness, so in an effort to determine whether or not losses in income and wealth increase loneliness, researchers tested whether financial shock causes an increase in loneliness, and whether, relative to other periods, the effect was ameliorated during the Great Recession.

The reduced effect on loneliness of income shocks experienced during the Great Recession may have been due to individuals being able to draw on each other for support. However, in the coronavirus environment, restrictions on socializing reduce or remove access to the very supports that could help people navigate income losses and diminish feelings of loneliness.

Key findings of the report include:

  • In older adults, a large loss of income leads to greater loneliness, even after accounting for personal and family changes (e.g., widowhood) that could have affected loneliness.
  • Loneliness decreased in those who experienced income shock during the Great Recession.
  • Changes in health and social experiences did not explain the income shock effect.

“Our findings on 50+-year-olds suggest that financial shocks may exacerbate feelings of loneliness that are being triggered by current restrictions on people’s social activity.”

Louise Hawkley

Senior Research Scientist

“Our findings on 50+-year-olds suggest that financial shocks may exacerbate feelings of loneliness that are being triggered by current restrictions on people’s social activity.”


The study draws on data from the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal panel study that began in 1992 with a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults over age 50 and interviews roughly 20,000 respondents biennially on subjects related to health care, housing, assets, employment, and pensions. A negative financial shock is defined as the loss of 75 percent or more of the total net household income or wealth between two survey years. Loneliness is measured based on the three-item UCLA Loneliness Scale, which yields values between 0 and 6, with higher values indicating more frequent feelings of loneliness.

About NORC at the University of Chicago

NORC at the University of Chicago conducts research and analysis that decision-makers trust. As a nonpartisan research organization and a pioneer in measuring and understanding the world, we have studied almost every aspect of the human experience and every major news event for more than eight decades. Today, we partner with government, corporate, and nonprofit clients around the world to provide the objectivity and expertise necessary to inform the critical decisions facing society.

Contact: For more information, please contact Eric Young at NORC at or (703) 217-6814 (cell).

Xi Song is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences and an affiliate of the Population Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Other contributors include Boyan Zheng, M.A., of the University of Wisconsin—Madison.