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Associations between changes in loneliness and social connections, and mental health during the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Women's Health Initiative. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2021 Dec 16



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BACKGROUND: Older women have faced significant disruptions in social connections during the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic. Whether loneliness increased, or whether a change in loneliness from pre- to intra-pandemic period was associated with mental health during the pandemic is unknown.

METHODS: Older women (n=27,479; mean age 83.2 [SD: 5.4] years) completed surveys in mid-2020, including questions about loneliness, living arrangements, changes in social connections, and mental health. Loneliness was also previously assessed in 2014-2016. We examined whether loneliness changed from the pre- to intra-pandemic period and explored factors associated with this change. In multivariable models, we investigated the association of changes in loneliness and social connections with mental health.

RESULTS: Loneliness increased from pre- to intra-pandemic levels. Factors associated with worsening loneliness included older age, experiencing stressful life events, bereavement, histories of vascular disease and depression, and social connection disruptions. Factors associated with a decrease in loneliness included identifying as Black, engaging in more frequent physical activity, being optimistic, and having a higher purpose in life. A 3-point increase in loneliness scores was associated with higher perceived stress, higher depressive, and higher anxiety symptoms. Social connection disruptions showed modest or no associations with mental health.

CONCLUSIONS: Loneliness increased during the pandemic in older women and was associated with higher stress, depressive and anxiety symptoms. Our findings point to opportunities for interventions targeting lifestyle behaviors, well-being, disrupted social connections, and paying closer attention to those with specific medical and mental health histories that may reduce loneliness and improve mental health.

Author List

Goveas JS, Ray RM, Woods NF, Manson JAE, Kroenke CH, Michael YL, Shadyab AH, Meliker JR, Chen JC, Johnson L, Mouton C, Saquib N, Weitlauf J, Wactawski-Wende J, Naughton M, Shumaker S, Anderson GL


Joseph S. Goveas MD Professor in the Psychiatry department at Medical College of Wisconsin