Two in five Americans feel their social relationships are not meaningful, while one in five feel lonely or socially isolated, according to the HRSA. Researchers are calling this problem the “loneliness epidemic,” and it turns out, the decline in social skills contributing to it actually begins far earlier than previously assumed.
An ongoing study conducted at the University of Kent, called CogSoCoAGE, found social skills begin declining in adults in their late 30s and early 40s.
What specific “social skills” were lost?
Social skills were based on a person’s “theory of mind,” which is the ability to read people and infer information about them. They also included other cognitive skills, like behavior control.
In one-on-one conversations, researchers found older adults were less likely to look directly at the other person than adolescents were. When tracking eye movements, they noticed participants looking in the background instead.
When looking away, Heather Ferguson, Ph.D., said, “you’re missing a huge amount of cues about meaning, intentions, and emotions,” which can lead to misunderstanding or lack of connection.
Not only does eye contact weaken in actual interactions, but Ferguson said older adults also avoid looking at strangers when walking, which can limit new conversations or potential new friendships. “They’re sort of subtle differences in the way you experience life that can have a massive impact on opportunities to engage in social interaction,” Ferguson said.
While it might seem counterintuitive, maintaining empathy for a person’s viewpoint (even when different from your own) does not seem to worsen with age. But empathizing with another person’s social pain does.
It’s possible, if scientists intervene early enough, they might be able to reverse that behavior. Encouraging adults to increase their daily interactions with strangers would expose them to people with different social pains, which might increase understanding.
Why does this matter?
Decreased social interaction can lead to loneliness and even depression, which contributes to the loneliness epidemic. It’s important for scientists to intervene early enough to be preventive.
The findings—which revealed these issues in 30- to 40-year-olds—suggest training programs to improve brain functioning and overall well-being should begin earlier in life rather than after retirement.
For introverts, constant interaction can be draining, but it’s important to engage in healthy levels of social activity—in fact, that kind of support can even reverse anxiety disorders and hopefully combat the loneliness epidemic.
Author: Abby Moore
Source: Mind Body Green: Social Skills Might Decline In Your 30s & 40s, Study Finds