Pandemic worsened older adults' mental health and sleep; others show long-term resilience

Key findings from a survey of people aged 50 to 80 on the impact of the pandemic on their current mental health and sleep. The survey was conducted at the end of January 2021. Credit: University of Michigan

Almost one in five older adults say their mental health has deteriorated since the pandemic started in March 2020, and an equal percentage say their sleep has suffered during that time too. According to a new survey of people aged 50 to 80, more than one in four say they are more anxious or worried than they were before the COVID-19 era.

Women, people in their fifties and early sixties, and older adults with a college degree or above were more likely than others to report poorer mental health than before the pandemic, according to new findings from the National Healthy Aging Survey. Older adults who say their physical health is fair or bad were the most likely to report poorer mental health, with 24% saying so.

And when asked about the last two weeks prior to the survey, the percentage of respondents who said they had mental symptoms was even higher. 28% said they felt depressed or hopeless during this time, 34% said they were nervous or anxious, and 44% said they had recently felt stressed.

Almost two-thirds (64%) said they had had trouble falling or falling asleep at least once in the past week, twice as many as in a 2017 survey of a similar group of older adults.

The survey is based on the University of Michigan Institute of Health Policy and Innovation and is supported by AARP and Michigan Medicine, UM’s academic medical center. It is based on the responses of a national sample of more than 2,000 adults ages 50 to 80 to a survey in late January, when COVID-19 case rates were high across the country and vaccination of older adults had only just begun.

The survey also shows hopeful signs that many older adults are resilient over the long term. Two-thirds say their current mental health is excellent or very good. Just over 80% say their sanity is as good or better than it was 20 years ago.

Pandemic worsened mental health and sleep in older adults;  others show long-term resilience

Key Findings from a Survey of People 50-80 Years Old on Comfort Levels and Recent History Discussing Their Mental Health with a Healthcare Provider. Photo credit: University of Michigan

Just under half (46%) of respondents say they feel isolated, down 56% in a similar survey in Spring 2020, compared to 28% before the pandemic. Almost one in three (29%) says they have made a lifestyle change to improve their mental health since the beginning of the pandemic, e.g. B. Exercise, diet and meditation.

“As we enter a new phase of the pandemic and most older adults are vaccinated, it is important to ensure adequate access to screenings and care to recognize and address the ongoing effects of this prolonged period of stress,” says Lauren Gerlach, DO , M.Sc., a geriatric psychiatrist at Michigan Medicine who worked with the survey team. “This is especially important for those who may have difficulty accessing mental health care, including those on lower incomes and in poor physical health.”

The data also suggest that older adults are more open to seeking mental health help than previous research suggests. 71% said they would not hesitate to see a psychiatrist in the future, and 13% said they had spoken to their elementary school care provider about a new mental health issue since the pandemic began.

Survey director Preeti Malani, MD, an also geriatrics-trained infectious disease physician in Michigan Medicine, notes that primary care physicians play a key role in identifying, monitoring, and treating the mental health problems of older adults.

“It’s gratifying to see that nearly a third of older adults rated their GP as the person they’d most like to talk to about mental health issues, and that 19% said they had actually done so in the past two years “, she says. “Health systems and insurers should support this role and work to reduce the stigma of seeking help for those patients who still feel this way.”

Among the 29% of older adults who said they would be reluctant to see a psychologist for treatment in the future, common reasons were that they thought it wouldn’t help, that they would feel embarrassed, or that they were worried about the cost did.

“Older adults are hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and have affected mental health for many,” said Alison Bryant, Ph.D., senior vice president of research at AARP. “We see bright spots of resilience in some of these tough times, but we must continue to provide support as we emerge from the pandemic and deal with the aftermath.”

New APA poll shows persistent fear among Americans. Provided by the University of Michigan

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