Danish scientists recently assessed the impact of the 2019 coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) on mental health in the elderly. The results indicate a slightly increased risk of loneliness in the study population. However, an overall reduction in the risk of depression and sleep disturbances was observed during the pandemic. The study was published in Annals of Epidemiology.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused over 6 million deaths worldwide. In the early stage of the pandemic, when vaccines were not available, stringent control measures were implemented around the world, including wearing masks, hand hygiene, social distancing and blocking, to limit transmission of the disease. severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the etiological pathogen of COVID-19.
Although a sharp reduction in social activities among people has contributed greatly to limiting the trajectory of the pandemic, it has caused a deterioration in mental health in predisposed 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, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity and social status.
In the current longitudinal study, scientists compared the mental health consequences in European middle-aged and older populations before and during Europe’s first COVID-19 outbreak.
Study analysis was conducted using mental health data obtained from the Survey of Health, Aging, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). The final analysis included data from 36,478 individuals over the age of 50. The incidence of depression, loneliness and sleep disturbances was assessed in the study population before and during the first wave of the pandemic in Europe.
An overall reduction in mental health symptoms was observed during the pandemic compared to before. Notably, the percentage of people reporting depression or sleep problems declined during the pandemic. However, a slight increase in the prevalence of loneliness among study participants was observed during the pandemic.
Considering socio-demographic factors, the analysis revealed that the overall reduction in depression levels observed during the pandemic was relatively minor among people with lower education levels, fewer close social relationships and no limitations in basic activities due to to health or not to work.
Although a lower risk of sleep disturbances was observed during the pandemic, the effect was relatively less pronounced in male participants and in those with less close social relationships.
As for loneliness, a higher risk was observed among women during the pandemic. Compared to participants with 1 or 0 close social relationships, those who had two or more close social relationships before the pandemic showed greater susceptibility to loneliness during the pandemic. Additionally, a higher risk of loneliness was observed in participants who had contracted COVID-19 than in those without the disease.
Country-specific prevalence of mental health problems
The data obtained from 27 European countries were analyzed considering the degree of rigor in the implementation of control measures during the pandemic. Participants living in more stringent countries showed a lower decline in the risk of depression during the pandemic than those living in less stringent countries.
Likewise, the overall induction of loneliness risk observed during the pandemic was greater in participants living in more severe 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).
Meaning of the study
The study compares the mental health consequences before and during the pandemic in European middle-aged and older populations. While the risk of depression and sleep problems decreased during the pandemic, a higher risk of feeling lonely was observed among participants.
As mentioned by the scientists, the results could be contradictory as depression, loneliness and sleep disturbances are commonly positively correlated. Although an expected induction of loneliness risk was observed in the study, the unexpected reduction in the risk of depression and sleep problems could be due to the induction of social solidarity induced by the pandemic.