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Older adults may be doing better during this pandemic than many people may realize. A new study involving older adults with pre-existing major depressive disorder has found no increase in depression and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers from five institutions, including UCLA, found that the older adults, who were already enrolled in ongoing studies of treatment resistant depression, also exhibited resilience to the stress of physical distancing and isolation.

“We thought they would be more vulnerable to the stress of COVID because they are, by CDC definition, the most vulnerable population,” said study investigator Dr. Helen Lavretsky, who is a professor-in-residence of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA, Los Angeles, California. “But what we learned is that older adults with depression can be resilient. They told us that coping with chronic depression taught them to be resilient.”

Researchers further determined that participants were more concerned about the risk of contracting the virus than the risks of isolation. While all maintained physical distance, most did not feel socially isolated and were using virtual technology to connect with friends and family. While they were coping, many participants said their quality of life was lower, and they worry their mental health will suffer with continued physical distancing.

Participants were upset by the inadequate governmental response to the pandemic. Based on the findings, the study authors write that policies and interventions to provide access to medical services and opportunities for social interaction are needed to help older adults maintain mental health and quality of life as the pandemic continues.

Dr. Lavretsky said further research is needed to determine the impact of the pandemic over time. The findings offer takeaways for others while weathering the pandemic. “These older persons living with depression have been under stress for a longer time than many of the rest of us. We could draw upon their resilience and learn from it,” said Dr. Lavretsky.The authors further emphasized that access to mental health care and support groups, and continued social interaction are needed to help older adults weather the pandemic.

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