A study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior has found that boys and men experience more social isolation than girls and women, with this difference disproportionately affecting the unmarried, or individuals with disrupted relationship histories. Further, levels of social isolation increase from adolescence through later life for both genders.
Social isolation – the objective state of having limited social relationships or contact with others – is associated with poor mental and physical health outcomes, as well as increased risk of mortality. In this work, Debra Umberson and colleagues pursue two research questions. First, whether there are gender differences in social isolation and its trajectories from adolescence to older adulthood. Second, whether gender differences are dependent on marital or partnership histories.
This research used data from two longitudinal studies, including the Add Health, and the Health and Retirement Study (HRS). Add Health followed U.S. adolescents between grades 7-12 in 1994-1995, with 5 interviews between 1995 and 2018. The HRS is an ongoing biannual survey that was launched in 1992, including adults born between 1931-1941, and their partners of any age. Every 6 years, a cohort of adults ages 50-55 are added to the study. The total sample of the current work included 12,885 women and 9271 men.
The dependent variable, social isolation, reflects a summary index of social connection across numerous domains, including romantic relationships, family and friends, and the community. The primary independent variables were gender, age, and partnership history (i.e., married/cohabiting, stably partnered, ever disrupted – including widowhood, divorce, disrupted cohabitation). The researchers adjusted analyses for education level, race/ethnicity, and self-rated health.
Analyses revealed that men are more isolated than women in the younger Add health sample, while women are more isolated than men in the older HRS sample. At all ages, men reported higher levels of social isolation compared to women. When taking into account marital and partnership history, the researchers found that men and women showed similar patterns of increasing isolation between ages 18-42, regardless of their partnership status.
But social isolation patterns varied depending on partnership histories. Up to around age 25, those who were stably partnered reported more isolation than the never married or those with disrupted partnerships. However, the latter groups experienced a steeper increase in social isolation; and by age 28, the stably partnered appeared comparatively less isolated. Among stably partnered individuals, women report less isolation until age 60, with the gender gap disappearing after age 62.
The authors add, “women experience a faster rate of increase in isolation than do men such that women become steadily more isolated than men beginning around age 68. Thus, for older women, the partnered may be at a disadvantage compared to the unpartnered.”
A potential limitation to this work is that the data consisted of two different longitudinal studies, which relied on different samples, age cohorts, and slightly different measures. The researchers write, “Thus, any conclusions about overall life course change in social isolation should be viewed as suggestive and with some caution.”
The study, “Gender and Social Isolation across the Life Course”, was authored by Debra Umberson, Zhiyong Lin, and Hyungmin Cha.