Lockdown loneliness and lack of exercise spark rise in depression among over-50s

Gabriella Swerling
·2 min read
A decrease in physical activity was associated with worsening mental health and well-being - Andrew Matthews/PA
A decrease in physical activity was associated with worsening mental health and well-being - Andrew Matthews/PA
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Loneliness and a shortage of exercise during lockdown have sparked an increase in depression and anxiety among people over 50.

Researchers at the University of Exeter and King's College London studied data from more than 3,000 people over 50 and found loneliness emerged as a key factor linked to worsening symptoms of depression and anxiety.

A decrease in physical activity since the start of the pandemic was also associated with worsening mental health and well-being. The researchers found that women and retired people were more likely to be struggling with their mental health.

Dr Byron Creese, of the University of Exeter, who led the study, said: "Even before the pandemic, loneliness and physical activity levels were a huge issue in society, particularly among older people.

"Our study enabled us to compare mental health symptoms before and after Covid-19 in a large group of people aged 50 and over. We found that during lockdown, loneliness and decreased physical activity were associated with more symptoms of poor mental health, especially depression.

"It's now crucial that we build on this data to find new ways to mitigate the risk of worsening mental health during the pandemic."

The study, published in International Psychogeriatrics, found that before the pandemic lonely people would report an average of two symptoms of depression for at least several days over the previous two weeks.

During lockdown, they reported either an increase in the frequency of depressive symptoms to more than half the days in the two week period or a new symptom for at least several days in that time frame. In people who were not lonely, the level of depressive symptoms was unaffected.

Professor Clive Ballard, of the University of Exeter, said: "We are only just beginning to learn the impact that Covid-19 is having on the health and well-being of older people. For example, the effect of any economic impact may not yet have emerged.

"Our large-scale study will span a number of years, and will help us understand some of the longer-term effects of Covid-19 on mental health and well-being, and ultimately, on whether this has any knock-on effect on aspects of ageing, such as brain function and memory."

Zunera Khan, research portfolio lead at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King's College London, said: "We've found links between loneliness and a drop in physical exercise and worsening mental health symptoms. It should be within our power to find ways of keeping people socially engaged and active."

The study, funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre (BRC), now plans to conduct further analysis on groups at particularly high risk, such as people with cognitive impairment and those with caring roles.