Older people experienced the greatest rise in anxiety during the first national coronavirus lockdown and should be prioritised for mental health support as restrictions are eased, research suggests.
The study by UK and US researchers, believed to be the largest of its kind, found “wide-ranging positive and negative effects” on the UK population’s mental health and wellbeing.
More than 379,000 people took part in the Great British Intelligence Test, promoted by the BBC, prior to the pandemic in January 2020 and between May and June 2020, during the first national lockdown.
The study is a collaboration between Imperial College London, King’s College London, the University of Cambridge, the University of Southampton, the University of Chicago, and the NHS foundation trusts of Southern Health and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
The largest changes were seen in anxiety levels, with the proportion of people feeling anxious or on edge at least several times a week rising from 24% to 33%.
The proportion of people who responded “never” to this question fell from 18% to 8%.
The anxiety levels of adults aged 60-80 saw the greatest change, while this age group also reported increased levels of depression during the first lockdown.
Healthcare workers showed large differences to the broader population, such as having less free time, being less likely to feel more relaxed and more likely to report greater work engagement.
The responses also suggest that people living with their parents or with small children indicated greater conflicts at home.
But the researchers said a “surprising proportion” of people experienced substantial positives during the first lockdown, such as greater sense of community, improved environment, connection with loved ones, reduced commute times and more spare time for family and pursuits.
Disabled people and shielders had some of the most negative perceptions, reporting little benefit from positives others identified.
On average, younger people indicated higher anxiety and depression scores than older adults prior to the pandemic, and these remained higher during the first lockdown.
The researchers said there is cause for concern about the mental health of younger and older people, but while considerable attention has been drawn to the former, the disproportionate impact on older people has been “overlooked”.
Study lead Dr Adam Hampshire, from the Department of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London, and associate member of the UK Dementia Research Institute, said: “Although anxiety levels increased across all ages, older people were disproportionately affected, also showing higher levels of depression, and getting fewer hours of sleep.
“There are multiple reasons why this may be the case, including isolation from loved ones and the worries that come with being the most at risk to the virus.
“I believe this older demographic has not received enough attention and must be prioritised for care and mental health interventions, especially those who are clinically vulnerable and may feel left behind as we move out of lockdown.”
The survey is still available to the public, and researchers will re-contact respondents to see how they are adapting later on in the pandemic and in its aftermath.
The paper is published in the journal Nature Communications.