multigenerational friends
The Aging Well Issue

Why Having Friends of All Ages Is Good for Your Health

Key Takeaways

  • Loneliness and social isolation are linked to mental and physical health challenges, especially for people over 50.
  • Having friends of different ages can do more than stave off loneliness; it can help us learn new skills and make us more open-minded.

According to data from the U.K.’s Community Life Survey, the three groups most at-risk for loneliness are:

  • Older, widowed homeowners living alone with long-term health conditions
  • Unmarried middle-aged adults with long-term health conditions
  • Younger people who are renting and may not feel like part of the community

Here’s a solution that almost seems too convenient: What if those groups befriended one another?

According to research published late last year, befriending someone from a different generation is an effective way to curb loneliness. It helps widen perspectives, broaden support networks, and increase social inclusion.

It’s a strategy that’s working for Ariana Thao, a 24-year-old who recently started law school at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.

“During the pandemic, I had actually gotten very comfortable with being lonely, but now that I’m in a big, new city with no support system, I sometimes feel really lonely,” Thao told Verywell.

After joining a non-profit volunteer organization called Freedom, Inc., in neighboring Wisconsin, she started spending time with women over 10, 20, and 30 years her senior. Soon, they became her mentors, support system, and friends.

“Being in my 20s is like being in the trenches,” she said. “I’m still building my life, and many people around me who are the same age are doing the same things and feeling the same way. But my older friends are not. They offer reassurance that I can do this.”

For Kimberly Vue, a 27-year-old academic advisor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, befriending colleagues in their 40s helped her find her groove at work, where she initially felt isolated and like an imposter.

“As a first-generation professional, there was just so much I didn’t know, like understanding the work culture, work-life balance, and how to deal with conflict. I felt like I was starting from ground zero,” Vue told Verywell.

Her work friends assured her they’d felt the same way.

“Being able to talk about these things with my older friends validates my experiences and reassures me,” she said. “I think I really needed that during such a pivotal time in my life, especially being a part of an immigrant family where my parents don’t offer that source of older wisdom.”

Intergenerational Friendships Are Mutually Beneficial

While Thao and Vue appreciate their older friends’ life experiences and advice, the benefits go both ways.

“As we age, we may feel a greater sense of loneliness if we don’t make an effort to stay engaged in activities and connected with people,” Neda Gould, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told Verywell via email. 

When older adults, in particular, befriend someone from a younger generation, they’re more likely to learn new skills and to be more open-minded, Gould said.

Thao thinks she’s offered her older friends a fresh perspective on culture.

“We’ll have deep conversations where I introduce new viewpoints on sex positivity, generational trauma, and race-based perspectives,” she said. “I’ve been able to shed light on some of their kids’ experiences and offer advice based on what I was going through as an emerging adult.”

Why Loneliness Is a Health Issue

While loneliness can be linked to health problems like depression at any age, adults over age 50 are also at a higher risk of health conditions aggravated by the toll of loneliness and social isolation, including dementia, heart disease, stroke, and even premature death.

This makes the stakes for social connectedness higher as time progresses. 

Importantly, loneliness and social isolation are not the same, Diane Meier, MD, professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told Verywell. Loneliness refers to a feeling of being alone despite how many social interactions you have. In contrast, social isolation is a lack of interactions in the first place, typically measured over the course of a day or week. 

Postmenopausal women may have a particularly high risk of health complications linked to both loneliness and isolation. Recent research shows that of the almost 58,000 women observed over eight years, social isolation was associated with an 8% increase in cardiovascular disease, while loneliness was associated with a 5% increase.

Among women who said they experienced both, heart disease risk was 13% to 27% higher than those with lower scores for loneliness and isolation. 

Additional studies show that loneliness may double the risk of type 2 diabetes and lead to significantly worse outcomes in heart failure patients. 

“It is very abundantly clear that human contact is essential to health,” Meier said. “We have to think about social contact and being with people almost the same way as we think about eating a healthy diet and exercising.”

Meier describes the prevalence of both loneliness and social isolation among older adults as a fairly recent phenomenon, tied to a more mobile population and younger generations moving away from home.

“From the standpoint of how our species evolved, living in intergenerational groups is normal,” she said.

She thinks intergenerational friendship is normal, too.

“Regardless of age, everybody’s just human; you’re no less of a person at age 75 than you were at 25,” Meier said. “We have to learn to see that we’re all human and we’re all in this together. Age is just a characteristic like height, weight, or eye color.”

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Korkiamäki R, O’Dare CE. Intergenerational friendship as a conduit for social inclusion? insights from the “book-ends.” Soc Incl. 2021;9(4):304-314. doi:10.17645/si.v9i4.4555

  2. Erzen E, Çikrikci Ö. The effect of loneliness on depression: a meta-analysis. Int J Soc Psychiatry. 2018;64(5):427-435. doi:10.1177/0020764018776349

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alzheimer’s disease and healthy aging. loneliness and social isolation linked to serious health conditions.

  4. Golaszewski NM, LaCroix AZ, Godino JG, et al. Evaluation of social isolation, loneliness, and cardiovascular disease among older women in the US. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(2):e2146461. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.46461

  5. Henriksen RE, Nilsen RM, Strandberg RB. Loneliness increases the risk of type 2 diabetes: a 20 year follow-up—results from the HUNT study. Diabetologia. 2022. doi:10.1007/s00125-022-05791-6

By Alyssa Hui
Alyssa Hui is a St. Louis-based health and science news writer. She was the 2020 recipient of the Midwest Broadcast Journalists Association Jack Shelley Award.