The study shows changes in the mental health of Europe’s elderly population during the COVID-19 pandemic

Researchers in Denmark recently assessed the impact of the 2019 coronavirus disease pandemic (COVID-19) on the mental health of older people. The results show a slight increase in the risk of loneliness in the study population. However, during the pandemic there is an overall reduction in the risk of depression and sleep problems. The study was published in Annals of epidemiology.

Study: Longitudinal changes in mental health after the blocking of COVID-19: Results of the Study on Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe. Image credit: Halfpoint / Shutterstock

Background

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused more than 6 million deaths worldwide. In the early stages of the pandemic, when no vaccines were available, stringent control measures were applied worldwide, including wearing a face mask, hand hygiene, social distancing and blocking to limit the transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome, coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the causative agent of COVID-19.

Although the sharp decline in social activities among the people has significantly helped to limit the trajectory of the pandemic, this has led to a deterioration in the mental health of vulnerable people. Studies conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic show 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 long-term study, researchers compare the effects on mental health of the European middle-aged and older population before and during the first outbreak of COVID-19 in Europe.

I study design

The analysis of the study was carried out using data related to mental health obtained from the Health, Aging and Retirement Survey in Europe (SHARE). The final analysis includes data on 36,478 people over the age of 50. The incidence of depression, loneliness and sleep problems was assessed in the study population before and during the first pandemic wave in Europe.

Important observations

During the pandemic, there was an overall reduction in mental health symptoms compared to before. In particular, the percentage of people reporting depression or sleep problems decreases during a pandemic. However, there has been a slight increase in the prevalence of loneliness among study participants during the pandemic.

Taking into account socio-demographic factors, the analysis revealed that the overall reduction in depression levels observed during the pandemic was relatively less among people with lower levels of education, less close social relations and no restrictions. in the main activities due to health or non-functioning work.

Although there is a lower risk of sleep problems during the pandemic, the effect is relatively less pronounced in male participants and those with less close social relationships.

With regard to loneliness, there is a higher risk among women during the pandemic. Compared with participants with 1 or 0 close social relationships, those who had two or more close social relationships before the pandemic showed a higher sensitivity to loneliness during the pandemic. In addition, participants who became infected with COVID-19 had a higher risk of loneliness than those without the disease.

Country-specific prevalence of mental health problems

Data from 27 European countries were analyzed, taking into account the degree of strictness in the implementation of control measures during the pandemic. Participants living in countries with higher severity showed a smaller reduction in the risk of depression during the pandemic than those living in less severe countries.

Similarly, the overall induction at risk of loneliness observed during a pandemic is higher among 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).

Significance of the study

The study compares the effects on mental health before and during the pandemic in the European middle-aged and older population. While the risk of depression and sleep problems decreased during the pandemic, there was a higher risk of loneliness among participants.

As mentioned by scientists, the findings could be self-contradictory, as depression, loneliness and sleep disorders are usually positively related. Although the study showed an expected induction in the risk of loneliness, the unexpected reduction in the risk of depression and sleep problems may be due to the pandemic-induced induction of social solidarity.

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