British adults aged 50 and above experienced their highest-ever levels of mental ill health during the COVID-19 pandemic, even surpassing the well-known peak in midlife, according to new research published in PLOS Medicine.
Researchers from the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies and the Centre for Society and Mental Health at King’s College London analysed data collected over four decades from more than 16,000 adults, born in 1946, 1958 and 1970, who are taking part in three British birth cohort studies. The participants’ levels of psychological distress were assessed repeatedly over the course of their adult lives, through a series of questions that captured symptoms of depression and anxiety. The participants were also surveyed at three points during the first year of the pandemic: in May 2020, September/October 2020 and February/March 2021.
By autumn 2020, those born in 1958 and 1970 had higher levels of psychological distress, on average, than they had ever experienced in adulthood. Those born in 1946 had similar levels of psychological distress to their previous midlife peak in their early 50s.
Psychological distress is known to peak in midlife, before improving again as people get older. This is often referred to as the ‘midlife crisis’ in mental health.
Women struggled more than men with their mental health across all age groups, widening the already substantial gender inequalities in mental health that existed before the pandemic.
The researchers explained that this unforeseen second midlife mental health crisis may accelerate and exacerbate the onset of chronic mental health and other related health difficulties, disproportionately affecting women and increasing pressures on the NHS.
Dr Darío Moreno-Agostino, lead author of the study, said: “We know that anxiety and depression are among the top leading causes of disease worldwide. On top of the suffering they cause, mental health problems are closely linked to numerous physical health problems – right up to and including increased morbidity. The fact that we are observing an unexpected new peak of the very mental health problems that can lead to these long-term trajectories is deeply concerning.”
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Read the full paper
Long-term psychological distress trajectories and the COVID-19 pandemic in three British birth cohorts: A multi-cohort study by Darío Moreno-Agostino et al. was published in the scientific journal PLOS Medicine in April 2023.
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