Older people suffered poor mental health over worries about food while shielding

Older people who were advised to shield at the start of the pandemic suffered high levels of depression and anxiety over worries about food and essentials, a new study has found.

The research, co-led by UCL, shows that the increase in poor mental health was not related to reduced social contacts, but due to higher levels of worry about obtaining food and other essentials, and less physical activity and sleep.

It was around the time when supermarkets were dealing with empty shelves due to panic-buying and customers faced delays in getting a time slot for deliveries.

This prompted supermarkets to prioritise slots for deliveries for people in the shielding group, who were also entitled to food parcels.

The study found 60% of older people instructed to shield were strictly isolating in April and May, staying at home and trying to limit face-to-face contact.

Severe depression and anxiety symptoms were twice as common among high risk older individuals who were socially isolating (32%) compared with average risk participants (17%).

The study, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, gathered data from 5,800 older women and men in June and July this year with a mean age of 70 to evaluate the impact of Covid-19 on mental health, quality of life, social connectedness, worries, and health-related behaviour.

It found participants in the high-risk group were more likely to have been hospitalised with Covid-19 and to be worried about obtaining food and other essentials.

Loneliness was much more common in the shielded group and they were more likely to be less physically active than usual and to spend more time sitting compared with others.

For people in the shielding category, the guidance remains that shielding is not currently needed unless they are in a local lockdown area.

The findings, published on Wednesday, used data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) and was funded by Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19.

UCL Professor and ELSA lead Andrew Steptoe said: “The advice to people at risk of Covid-19 may have saved lives and reduced infection, but it has come at a cost.

“With an increase in Covid-19 cases across the UK, efforts should be made to allay concerns and encourage health promoting behaviour to avoid further impairment of quality of life and mental health.”

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