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Loneliness and the menopause
In what can be a tumultuous time, many of us can feel alone
- Some women find menopause a lonely time of life
- Loneliness can be detrimental to your physical and mental health
- Discover ways of building up layers of connection
In today’s busy world, most of us are surrounded by people – be it at work, home, through social clubs or friendships, or caregiving or volunteering. And yet according to the Office for National Statistics, women (24%) are more likely than men (20%) to feel lonely at least some of the time .
When we think of loneliness, we often associate it as something that happens later in life, maybe an old person alone in a care home, or we’ll recall times as a child or a teen when feeling that no-one “got you” was part of the norm. In midlife it’s perfectly possible to feel lonely, and it’s something that even social butterflies or successful businesswomen experience. Being surrounded by people is no barrier to feeling lonely.
Is loneliness bad for me?
Make no mistake, spending time alone and enjoying your own company is perfectly healthy – sometimes there’s nothing nicer than shutting the doors on the outside world. But if you feel lonely, that’s been shown to have detrimental effects on your physical and mental health.
Social isolation has been found to rival smoking, obesity and physical activity in terms of increasing risk of premature death . It’s also associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia, plus higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide .
Even if you are not socially isolated – you have people in your life but still feel lonely – this can have a negative effect on your health, especially during the menopause.
Why can menopause be a factor?
Midlife can be a liberating, freeing period of life full of possibility and change. If you have children, they may be older and require less of your time; you might be flourishing in your job and feel secure in your relationships. On the other hand, it can also be a time of loss – an empty nest if your children move away, you may have elderly relatives who need care or struggle with their health, and if you’re entering the menopause, you may feel a sense of loss over your fertility or overwhelmed by what the next chapter of life might bring.
Perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms can be challenging. Some women find their mood dips or they have increased feelings of anxiety or irritability during this time. Symptoms can have a knock-on effect on your relationships – with your partner, friends and family, and at work. This can lead to a loss of confidence and you may feel others don’t understand what you’re experiencing.
Conversely, it’s been found that as women’s levels of loneliness increase, so too do their menopausal symptoms .
What can I do?
Acknowledging you feel lonely can help – understand that it’s not a reflection on you as a person but is about your circumstances. Consider what’s at the heart of your loneliness.
For some women, it’s the menopause itself. In the Department for Health and Social Care’s ‘Women’s Health – Let’s Talk About It’ survey of nearly 100,000 people in England, less than 1 in 10 participants said they have enough information on the menopause (9%) . The free balance app is full of resources to help you track and learn about your symptoms. There are also community pages – just knowing other women are experiencing similar things can help you realise you’re not alone.
The same government survey also found that 70% are comfortable talking to friends about the menopause, and 64% are comfortable talking about it with healthcare professionals (compared to 61% with family members). These conversations can help you build up a circle of support.
If your relationship with your partner is a contributing factor to your loneliness, consider if you’ve grown apart or any reasons you might not be connecting. Some couples bond over shared caring commitments of children but then when the children leave home, discover they don’t have as much in common. Your partner also may not understand how your menopausal symptoms can affect you – and they can’t be expected to know unless you tell them!
Similarly, friendships can take work, and that can feel hard when you’re not feeling your best. If you’re feeling lonely, consider your closest relationships. Robin Dunbar is a biological anthropologist and founder of Dunbar’s number, a theory about the number of social relationships a person can maintain. His research suggests most people have an inner circle of five people, usually made up of family members and up to two or three close friends. These relationships need investment to help them to thrive. If you’ve lost contact with a friend and their friendship is valuable to you, pick up the phone or send them a message. It can be tricky to socialise if you’re not feeling your best but you don’t have to be the life and soul of a night out – a walk with a friend can be beneficial for both of you.
According to Dunbar’s theory, we have successive layers of friends, contacts, acquaintances, and people you recognise. These require less work but they can still be of value in combatting loneliness. Saying hello to a neighbour as you walk your dog in the morning, for example, is a connection.
Consider joining a group to help to help find a sense of purpose and of belonging. It might be an exercise group or starting a new hobby or joining a committee at work. Think of your midlife as a time to discover yourself – it’s OK to question who are. What might you like to do or try now?
2&3. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25663.
4. Bayri Bingol, F. , Demirgoz Bal, M. , Yilmaz Esencan, T. , Ertugrul Abbasoglu, D. & Aslan, B. (2019), ‘The Effects of Loneliness on Menopausal Symptoms’, Clinical and Experimental Health Sciences, 9(3) 265-270. doi:10.33808/clinexphealthsci.533511