A large-scale online study has revealed that loneliness in adults aged 50 and over during the Covid-19 lockdown is linked to worsening symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The study, led by the University of Exeter and King’s College London and funded by the National Institute for Health Research Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre, found loneliness to be a key factor linked to worsening symptoms of depression and anxiety.

They also found a decrease in physical activity since the start of the pandemic was associated with worsening symptoms, along with other factors including being female and being retired.

According to the study, before the pandemic, lonely people reported an average of two symptoms of depression for at least several days over the previous two weeks. During lockdown, the frequency of depressive symptoms increased to more than half the days in the two-week period, or a new symptom for at least several days in that timeframe. In people who were not lonely however, the levels of depressive symptoms were unaffected.

Dr Bryon Creese of the University of Exeter Medical School, who led the study, said that “even before the pandemic, loneliness and decreased physical activity 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.”

Researchers were able to use data from as early as 2015 for participants of the PROTECT online study. PROTECT began in 2011 and was designed to understand the factors involved in healthy ageing.

In May 2020, researchers included a new questionnaire designed to assess the impact of Covid-19 on health and wellbeing. The questionnaire ran from May 13 to 8 June and was completed by 3,300 people, 1,900 of which were previous participants of PROTECT. The study is continuing to run in order to assess longer-term outcomes.

Professor Clive Ballard, Executive Dean and Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Exeter Medical School and leader of PROTECT stated: “We are only just beginning to learn the impact that Covid-19 has on the health and wellbeing of older people.

“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 wellbeing, and ultimately, on whether this has any knock-on effects on aspects of ageing, such as brain function and memory.”

The Office for National Statistics found that adults over 65 and living alone were far more likely to suffer from loneliness than those of the same age living with other people. However, those aged 16 to 39 years have been found more likely to experience lockdown loneliness overall.

In a recent study, Age UK found that the proportion of adults aged over 70 experiencing depression has doubled.

Due to the lockdown, seeing friends, family and even familiar faces has been largely prevented through social distancing rules.

Of course, new technologies such as Zoom have helped to alleviate the loneliness caused by long periods of isolation. However, as many as four million adults over the age of 65 have never used the internet and so are unable to communicate with friends and family in this manner.

If you are currently feeling lonely or isolated due to the lockdown, the NHS has provided some advice on what to do here.

Alternatively, you could call Samaritans on 116 123 for free, or visit their website at https://www.samaritans.org/

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