The Elderly, Mental Health and COVID-19

March 2, 2021

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been concern about the toll the virus is taking on the mental health of elderly individuals, but older adults appear to be weathering the virus better than people might think, according to several recent studies.

“The conclusion is that while older people are vulnerable, they have remarkable coping skills and resilience,” said Dr. Shawnna Ogden, a family medicine physician at University Medical Center. “People thought COVID would lead to incredible stress in the elderly. But older adults tend to have lower stress reactivity and better emotional regulation and wellbeing than younger adults.”

During a presentation to members of The University of Alabama OLLI program, Ogden explained that resilience is a protective factor that helps people overcome and adapt to difficult and stressful situations. Her talk was part of the Mini Medical School series hosted by The University of Alabama College of Community Health Sciences, which operates UMC.

Ogden noted that the widespread occurrence of infectious diseases, like COVID-19, is related to symptoms of psychological distress and mental illness, and that MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) had a significantly adverse effect on people’s mental health.

But she said a recent study conducted in France that looked at elderly social and psychological experiences with COVID-19 found that participants were coping well. In fact, participants were more concerned about the effect of the pandemic on young people. “Their responses were, ‘We know what it’s like, we’ve been through war.’ And ‘It’s younger people we’re worried about,’” said Ogden, also assistant professor of family, internal, and rural medicine at CCHS.

“Young people don’t have the same life experiences as older people. That makes it difficult to cope,” she said. “You have protective factors at this age (elderly).”

Even months into the pandemic, “studies have indicated that older adults may be less negatively affected by mental health outcomes than other age groups,” Ogden said.

In August 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a survey showing that participants age 65 years and older reported significantly lower percentages of anxiety disorder, depressive disorder or stress-related disorders as a result of COVID-19 than those in younger age groups.

Still, general research among older adults has documented the connection between loneliness and increased risk of depression, high blood pressure, sleep disorders and deterioration in cognitive function. And during COVID-19, Ogden said it has been essential to isolate and minimize face-to-face relationships to avoid spread of the virus.

But technology has played an important role in alleviating isolation and loneliness among the elderly. “It has emerged as an important factor for maintaining social connection as well as accessing mental health services,” Ogden said.

A recent study that explored Zoom and the benefits of digital group interventions found significant improvement in terms of loneliness and depressive symptoms among older people, she said.

COVID-19 does have a tremendous impact, however, on the physical health of the elderly. Although the virus can strike all age groups, most confirmed cases and deaths are in older adults. In the United States in October last year, 80% of COVID-19 deaths were among adults age 65 and older, Ogden said.