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Who has an Increased Risk for Depression and Loneliness during the Pandemic?

New SHARE COVID-19 study examines depression and loneliness of retired individuals aged 60 plus after the first wave of COVID-19

  • In countries that were hit very hard by the first wave of the pandemic in terms of mortality, the oldest old (80+) have the highest likelihood for feeling more depressed.
  • For more than every second person 60+ who already suffered from sadness or depression, the pandemic worsened the situation after the first COVID-19 wave.
  • Especially people living alone felt lonelier after the first COVID-19 wave (looking at people 60+ in Europe).

(April 2021) The sudden outbreak of COVID-19 in spring 2020 hit all countries across Europe. One of the main measures to reduce infection rates were contact limitations and social distancing. Contacts with older people were discouraged to particularly protect this vulnerable group with high risk for a severe disease progression. Social distancing and isolation are effective to reduce the spread of the virus but are also associated with physical and mental health issues. While present studies mainly focus on the effects of social isolation during the first lockdown in spring 2020, researchers Atzendorf and Gruber from the Munich Center for the Economics of Ageing (MEA) assessed medium-term consequences of the first COVID-19 wave on depression and loneliness of retired individuals aged 60 plus.

Country comparative perspective on depression and loneliness during the pandemic

The study combines data from the Corona Survey of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) conducted from June to August 2020 (preliminary Wave 8 Release 0 data set) and the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT). Including the OxCGRT data allows to track the role of macro indicators on country level. In total, 27,800 retired respondents aged 60+ from 26 European countries and Israel were included in the analysis. They were asked, for example, about changes in perceived feelings of sadness and loneliness compared to the time before the outbreak of COVID-19. Individual factors (age, weekly personal contacts, living alone) and country-level factors (number of COVID-19 related deaths and number of days with stringent control measures) were considered to examine what influences depression and loneliness.

The oldest old are the ones most likely to develop feelings of sadness or depression in countries with high mortality rates due to COVID-19

The MEA researchers found that 60% of the group of respondents with feelings of sadness or depression reported an increase in these feelings after the outbreak of the pandemic. In other words: For more than every second person who suffers from sadness and depression, the pandemic worsened the situation. Further, the researchers found out that the oldest respondents (aged 80 and over) had an increased likelihood for feeling more depressed, especially in countries with higher death rates and with a long duration of stringent measures. The MEA researchers conclude that these two groups should receive special attention when implementing policy measures to improve the mental health.

Especially people living alone suffer from increased loneliness

The share of those who reported an increase in loneliness makes up around 40 % of respondents with feelings of loneliness. In contrast to feelings of sadness or depression, the researchers did not find that age plays a role here. They did also not find that the number of cumulated deaths or the number of days with stringent epidemic control measures plays a significant role for increased feelings of loneliness. However, the results show that people living alone, particularly in countries with high mortality rates, are most at risk for feeling lonelier. Personal contacts at least once a week positively influence feelings of loneliness. This is not found for electronic contacts. These findings support the presumption that electronic contacts cannot compensate the loss of personal contacts in the age group under study or that people feeling lonely or depressive are less likely to engage in electronic contacts.

Large country variations in reported feelings of sadness/depression and loneliness

There are huge country differences in reported feelings of sadness/depression and loneliness (cf. Figure 1). While for example more than 30% of respondents in Portugal reported increased feelings of sadness, less than 10% of Danish, Czech and Slovenian respondents felt more depressed after the first lockdown. More than 20% of Greek and Italian respondents reported to feel lonelier, whereas this is the case for only 5% of Hungarian and 7% of Czech respondents. As the findings show, especially the country variations in sadness or depression are associated with different levels of pandemic affectedness during the first wave.

Source: Atzendorf/Gruber (2021), p.10

Medium-term consequences of COVID-19 on mental well-being and need for further research

This study using SHARE Wave 8 COVID-19 data belongs to the first ones to focus on depression and loneliness after the first wave of COVID-19 in a cross-national setting. The findings provide an interesting perspective on medium-term consequences of the pandemic on mental health in the elderly and are of high importance as mental health strains can have severe physical and psychological consequences. Supportive interventions to increase mental well-being are important to guarantee healthy ageing. Further research is needed to analyse whether the pandemic in general or the stringent epidemic control measures are more influential for older peopleĀ“s well-being and whether other causes can explain increased mental health strains during the pandemic.


Study by Josefine Atzendorf and Stefan Gruber (2021). The Mental Well-being of Older Adults after the First Wave of COVID-19. SHARE Working Paper Series 63-2021 Doi: 10.17617/2.3292887

URL: http://www.share-project.org/share-publications/share-working-paper-series.html

A newer version of this article has been published as:

Josefine Atzendorf and Stefan Gruber (2021). Depression and loneliness of older adults in Europe and Israel after the first wave of covid-19. European Journal of Ageing. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10433-021-00640-8

 

Photo: Adobe Stock / carballo