The mental health of older Canadians has suffered significantly over the course of the pandemic, with depressive symptoms actually persisting and worsening over time particularly for those experiencing loneliness, according to a new study by a team of Canadian researchers including Dalhousie’s Dr. Susan Kirkland.
Using data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA), a national team of researchers found that 43 per cent of adults aged 50 or older experienced moderate or high levels of depressive symptoms at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that increased as it dragged on.
Dr. Kirkland, head of the Dal’s Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, led the study with colleagues at McMaster and McGill universities in examining how health-related factors and social determinants such as income and social participation affected rates of depression during the initial lockdown in March 2020 and after re-opening following the first wave of COVID-19 in Canada.
“This national study adds to the mounting evidence of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health,” says Dr. Kirkland.
“In particular, it highlights that inequalities not only exist and persist, but deepen over time.”
Social isolation, income and gender amplify symptoms
The team found that older adults had twice the odds of depressive symptoms during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic, with those who were already marginalized or socially isolated faring far worse. Women in particular were more likely to have higher odds of depressive symptoms during the pandemic compared to men.
“Social determinants, loneliness and COVID-19 stressors were important predictors of increase in depressive symptoms during the pandemic,” the paper states. “Negative mental health impacts of the pandemic persist and may worsen over the long term in the absence of effective interventions.”
Researchers gathered the data through repeated telephone and web surveys. Of the total participants, 51 per cent were female, 42 per cent were aged 65 years and older and 68 per cent had an annual household income of $50,000 or more.
The prevalence of depressive symptoms increased from 16 per cent before the pandemic to 21 per cent during the initial lockdown. That crept up slightly to 22 per cent when there was a gradual lifting of the public health restrictions.
“The lower the income, the greater the increase in the odds of depressive symptoms during the pandemic when compared with the highest income group before the pandemic,” the paper states.
The odds of depressive symptoms during the initial lockdown increased by 3.35 times for people who had an annual household income of less than CDN $20,000.
“Those who were socially isolated, experiencing poorer health and of lower socioeconomic status were more likely to have worsening depression as compared to their pre-pandemic depression status collected as part of the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging since 2011,” says co-author Parminder Raina, a professor in the Department of Health Research Methods, Evidence and Impact and scientific director of the McMaster Institute for Research on Aging.
First COVID findings
The findings mark the first published COVID-19 research emerging from the CLSA, a national research platform on aging involving more than 50,000 community-dwelling middle-aged and older adults at recruitment. The platform is funded by the Government of Canada through and Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
Additional funding for the CLSA COVID-19 Questionnaire Study was provided by the Juravinski Research Institute, McMaster University, the McMaster Institute for Research on Aging, the Nova Scotia COVID-19 Health Research Coalition and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
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