Scientists from Denmark have recently evaluated the impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic on mental health in older adults. The findings indicate a slight increase in the risk of loneliness in the study population. However, an overall reduction in the risk of depression and sleeping problems has been observed during the pandemic. The study has been published in Annals of Epidemiology.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused more than 6 million deaths worldwide. At the early phase of the pandemic, when no vaccines were available, strict control measures, including face mask-wearing, hand hygiene, social distancing, and lockdown, were implemented worldwide to restrict the transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the causative pathogen of COVID-19.
Although a sharp reduction in social activities among people considerably helped limit the pandemic trajectory, it had caused mental health deterioration in susceptible people. Studies conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic have shown that strict control measures increase the incidence of mental health problems in the general population, irrespective of age, sex, ethnicity, and social status.
In the current longitudinal study, the scientists have compared the mental health consequences in middle-aged and older European populations before and during the first COVID-19 outbreak in Europe.
The study analysis was conducted using the mental health-related data obtained from the Survey of Health, Ageing, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). The final analysis included the data of 36,478 individuals aged above 50 years. The incidence of depression, loneliness, and sleeping problems were assessed in the study population before and during the first pandemic wave in Europe.
An overall reduction in mental health symptoms was observed during the pandemic compared to before. Specifically, the percentage of people reporting depression or sleeping problems reduced during the pandemic. However, a slight increase in the prevalence of loneliness was observed among study participants during the pandemic.
Considering socio-demographic factors, the analysis revealed that the overall reduction in depression levels observed during the pandemic was comparatively lesser among people with a lower educational level, fewer close social relations, and no limitation in basic activities due to health or not-working.
Although a lower risk of sleeping problems was observed during the pandemic, the effect was comparatively less pronounced in male participants and those with fewer close social relations.
Regarding loneliness, a higher risk was observed among women during the pandemic. Compared to participants with 1 or 0 close social relations, those who had two or more close social relations before the pandemic showed higher susceptibility to loneliness during the pandemic. In addition, a higher risk of loneliness was observed in participants who had contracted COVID-19 compared to those without the disease.
Country-specific prevalence of mental health problems
The data obtained from 27 European countries was analyzed by considering the degree of strictness in implementing control measures during the pandemic. The participants living in countries with higher strictness showed a lesser decline in the risk of depression during the pandemic than those living in less stringent countries.
Similarly, the overall induction in the risk of loneliness observed during the pandemic was higher in participants living in more stringent countries. Although the risk of loneliness increased during the pandemic, the effect was relatively lower in five countries (Finland, Romania, Hungary, Israel, and the Czech Republic) and relatively higher in nine countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Greece, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, and Slovenia).
The study compares the pre-and during-pandemic mental health consequences in middle-aged and older European populations. While the risk of depression and sleeping problems has reduced during the pandemic, a higher risk of feeling lonely has been observed among participants.
As mentioned by the scientists, the findings could be self-contradicting as depression, loneliness, and sleep disorders are commonly positively correlated. Although an expected induction in the risk of loneliness has been observed in the study, the unexpected reduction in the risk of depression and sleeping problems could be because of the pandemic-induced induction in social solidarity.