Due to the isolating nature of social distancing, it isn’t surprising that researchers have found a link between the COVID-19 pandemic and mental health issues. While pretty much the entire population is more prone to the physiological impact of the health crisis—regardless of whether they have battled it first hand or not—there is one group who is being hit the hardest mentally: older adults.
According to a new study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, older adults were more likely to experience COVID-19-based loneliness, experiencing psychiatric symptoms including anxiety, depression, and trauma symptoms.
If You’re “Young At Heart,” You’re Less at Risk
Interestingly enough, the physical age wasn’t the only factor. Researchers discovered that these mental health symptoms were more prominent with individuals who felt older than their age. The “young at heart” were not only less likely to be impacted by these coronavirus-related psychological issues, according to researchers, but older adults who felt younger than their age showed zero psychiatric symptoms related to loneliness.
“This study suggests that in people over 60, the ‘subjective age’ is an important factor in determining the impact of loneliness upon one’s psychiatric status. In other words, if you are over 60 and you feel younger than your stated age, loneliness is less likely to make you depressed, anxious or develop PTSD symptoms,” Paula Zimbrean, MD, a Yale Medicine psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study, explains to Eat This, Not That! Health.
“The way older adults perceive old age and their own aging may be more important to their coping and wellbeing than their chronological age,” Prof. Amit Shrira, from the Gerontology Program at the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences at Bar-Ilan University, explained in an article accompanying the study.
Researchers hope their findings will help identify older adults who are at a higher risk of developing such issues. Additionally, it can help “guide the development of suitable interventions aimed at lowering perception of age in order to mitigate the negative impact of such loneliness and create a protective factor to prevent such a link”—not only during the current pandemic, but in the future as well. “Subjective age may help identify those at high risk in suffering from loneliness, and suggest interventions aimed at ameliorating both loneliness and older subjective ages,” write the researchers.
Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., adds that the study also demonstrates the power of human connection. “We need physical contact with other human beings to survive and quickly devolve into various forms of illness when we are isolated,” he explains. “This is particularly true during times of stress. When we are under stress, Our central nervous systems go into hyperactive mode. One of the primary ways we find equilibrium and reduce our stress is through nurturing relationships with other human beings.”
How to Feel Younger Than You Are
According to Shrira, a clinical psychologist by training, there are a variety of ways to do this, including “providing ongoing assistance and communication while adhering to relevant health guidelines.” Also, making sure the older individual is engaging in regular conversations with anyone ranging from friends and family to strangers can prevent loneliness “and the sense that no one is willing to hear their pain.” As for those suffering with boredom, reading, listening to music, solving puzzles, cooking and baking, physical exercise (even the most minimal) and other leisure activities can also be helpful.
“Although we need more data before generalizing these findings to all people over 60, this study can help identify people at risk of being impacted by the isolation imposed in reaction to COVID-19 pandemic and allow the society to direct the interventions towards people more at risk,” says Dr. Zimbrean.
As for yourself: To get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these Things You Should Never Do During the Coronavirus Pandemic.
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