Covid pandemic much harder for socially active older people than their isolated counterparts, research reveals

Older people with an active social life had a sharper drop in their quality of life  (PA Archive)
Older people with an active social life had a sharper drop in their quality of life (PA Archive)

Older people with an active social life had a sharper drop in their quality of life and a greater increase in loneliness during the Covid pandemic than people who were more isolated, a study has revealed.

Researchers at University College London examined survey responses from 4,636 people in England between 2018 and the end of 2020, when strict rules on socialising were in place.

Just under a third (29 per cent) of respondents were classed as socially isolated, depending on their frequency of contact with friends and family, whether they lived with a partner and whether they participated in clubs, organisations or societies.

Before the pandemic, this cohort had a worse quality of life and experienced greater loneliness, but the study found that in 2020 their decline in these areas was less than their more socially connected peers.

Co-author Professor Andrew Steptoe, of the UCL Department of Behavioural Science & Health, said: “It might be expected that older people who were already socially isolated would be particularly vulnerable to the disruptions and restrictions of the pandemic.

“In fact, our study suggests the opposite - that isolated older people were somewhat protected from the negative aspects of pandemic restriction, perhaps because they had less to lose in terms of social connections.”

Life satisfaction declined about half as much among isolated adults, the study found, meaning they had a similar satisfaction with life during the pandemic as adults who were more socially connected.

Throughout most of 2020, the UK was in a lockdown in which all social contact was forbidden.

Even during periods where social mixing was allowed, elderly people were advised to “shield” at home to avoid contracting the virus.

Lead author Claryn Kung, a senior researcher at the UCL Department of Behavioural Science and Health, said: “It is likely that socially connected older men and women experienced a greater disruption in their habitual routines and rhythms.

“In contrast, more isolated individuals may have experienced relatively fewer changes in their daily lives, with their usual routines and arrangements possibly being less prone to disruptions by restrictions during the pandemic.

“Our findings highlight the need to care for isolated older adults, but also to be attentive in times of crises to the impact of major disruptions in social activity.”

The study found that isolated adults experienced a greater decline in their levels of physical activity, widening the gap between the two groups, and remained more likely to be worried about their future finances.

They did not on average change their likelihood of internet use, whereas more socially connected peers used the internet more.

The study received support from the UK’s National Institute for Health and Social Care Research (NIHR) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as well as the US National Institute on Aging.