Boys and men experience greater social isolation than girls and women, with this difference disproportionately affecting the unmarried, or individuals with a disturbed relationship history, according to a new research published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Further, levels of social isolation for both genders increase from adolescence until later life.
Debra Umberson and colleagues discuss whether social isolation is associated with poor mental and physical health outcomes as well as a greater risk of mortality. Second, whether gender differences are related to marital or partnership histories.
Add Health and the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) were used to conduct this research. In 1994-1995, the Add Health survey followed U.S. adolescents from grades 7 through 18, including five interviews from 1995 to 2018. The HRS is an ongoing biannual survey that was launched in 1992, including adults born between 1931 and 1941, and their partners of any age. Every 6 years, a cohort of adults ages 50 to 55 is added to the study.
Social isolation is a generalized index of social connection across many domains, including romantic relationships, family and friends, and the community (i.e., married/cohabiting, ever separated, including widowhood, divorce, disrupted cohabitation).
Men and women shared similar patterns of social isolation between the ages of 18 and 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 a higher level of social isolation than the never married or those who had disrupted partnerships; and by the age 28, the stably partnered appeared to be considerably less isolated. After age 60, women report less isolation among stably partnered individuals, with the gender disparity diminishing at age 62.
According to the authors, "women develop a faster rate of isolation than do men," and women become steadily more isolated around the age of 68. Thus, older women may be at a disadvantage over the unpartnered.
The authors write, "Any conclusions regarding overall life course change in social isolation should be considered with some caution."
Debra Umberson, Zhiyong Lin, and Hyungmin Cha coauthored the book "Gender and Social Isolation throughout the Life Course."