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One Year Later – Two Surveys Examine Impact of COVID-19 – Herb Weiss

By Herb Weiss, contributing writer on aging issues

Over the year the raging pandemic has impacted on the physical and mental health of Americans. With daily COVID case counts now the lowest since last year and hospitals seeing less coronavirus hospitalizations, most states, including Rhode Island, are now opening up.

According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) latest Stress in AmericaTM poll (findings released on March 11, 2021), the nation’s health crisis is far from over. Just one year after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, many adults report increased negative behaviors, such as undesired changes to their weight and increased drinking, that may be related to their inability to cope with prolonged stress.

APA’s survey of U.S. adults, conducted in late February 2021 by The Harris Poll, shows that a majority of adults (61 percent) experienced undesired weight changes—weight gain or loss—since the pandemic started, with 42 percent reporting they gained more weight than they intended. Of these individuals, they gained an average of 29 pounds (the median amount gained was 15 pounds) and 10 percent stated they gained more than 50 pounds, noted the poll’s findings.

Gaining Weight Bad for Your Health

Weight changes come with significant health risks, including higher vulnerability to serious illness from COVID-19.  According to the National Institute of Health, people who gain more than 11 pounds are at higher risk of developing Type II diabetes mellitus and coronary heart disease, and people who gain more than 24 pounds are at higher risk of developing ischemic stroke. 

For the 18 percent of Americans who said they lost more weight than they wanted to, the average amount of weight lost was 26 pounds (median amount lost was 12 pounds). Adult respondents also reported unwanted changes in sleep patterns and increased alcohol consumption. Two in 3 (67 percent) said they have been sleeping more or less than desired since the pandemic started. Nearly 1 in 4 adults (or 23 percent) reported drinking more alcohol to cope with their stress.

“We’ve been concerned throughout this pandemic about the level of prolonged stress, exacerbated by the grief, trauma and isolation that Americans are experiencing. This survey reveals a secondary crisis that is likely to have persistent, serious mental and physical health consequences for years to come,” said Arthur C. Evans Jr, PhD, APA’s chief executive officer, in a March 21st statement announcing the results of the study’s findings. 

Evans calls on health and policy leaders to come together quickly to provide additional behavioral health supports as part of any national recovery plan.

The researchers found that the pandemic took a particularly heavy toll on parents of children under 18-years old. While slightly more than 3 in 10 adults (31 percent) reported their mental health has worsened compared with before the pandemic, nearly half of mothers who still have children home for remote learning (47 percent) say that their mental health has worsened; 30 percent of the fathers who still have children home said the same. 

APA’s study also found that parents were more likely than those without children to have received treatment from a mental health professional (32 percent vs. 12 percent) and to have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder since the coronavirus pandemic began (24 percent vs. 9 percent). More than half of fathers (55 percent) reported gaining weight, and nearly half (48 percent) said they are drinking more alcohol to cope with stress.

As to essential workers, (either persons working in health care or law enforcement), the majority said that they relied on a lot of unhealthy habits to get through the year-long pandemic. Nearly 3 in 10 (29 percent said their mental health has worsened, while 3 in 4 (75 percent) said they could have used more emotional support than they received since the pandemic began. Essential workers were more than twice as likely as adults who were not essential workers to have received treatment from a mental health professional (34 percent vs. 12 percent) and to have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder since the coronavirus pandemic started (25 percent vs. 9 percent).

Furthermore, people of color noted that unintended physical changes occurred during the pandemic. Hispanic adults were most likely to report undesired changes to sleep (78 percent Hispanic vs. 76 percent Black, 63 percent white and 61 percent Asian), physical activity levels (87 percent Hispanic vs. 84 percent Black, 81 percent Asian and 79 percent white) and weight (71 percent Hispanic vs. 64 percent Black, 58 percent white and 54 percent Asian) since the beginning of the pandemic.

Black Americans were most likely to report feelings of concern about the future, say the researchers, noting that more than half said they do not feel comfortable going back to living life like they used to before the pandemic (54 percent Black vs. 48 percent Hispanic, 45 percent Asian and 44 percent white).  They also feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction once the pandemic ends (57 percent Black vs. 51 percent Asian, 50 percent Hispanic and 47 percent white).

“It’s clear that the pandemic is continuing to have a disproportionate effect on certain groups,” said APA President Jennifer Kelly, PhD. “We must do more to support communities of color, essential workers and parents as they continue to cope with the demands of the pandemic and start to show the physical consequences of prolonged stress,” says Kelly.

COVID-19’s Impact on Seniors

A newly released AARP study, released on May 10, 2021, has found that more than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, most adults age 50 and older say that it has had a negative impact on their mental health. Researchers found that seven in 10 older adults reported an increase in sadness or depression due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and nearly 8 in 10 said they had increased concern about the future, worry or anxiety. Half of adults 50 and older reported feelings of anxiety in the last two weeks, and 56% noted difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep, say the study’s findings.

“If you are feeling stressed and anxious after the last year, you are far from alone!” said Alison Bryant, Senior Vice President of Research at AARP in a statement announcing the survey results. “As our survey highlights, most older adults’ mental health and wellbeing was affected by the pandemic—and some of the ways we coped might not have been great for our health, either. With many communities returning to normal, we hope older adults will consider taking steps to reclaim their health this spring and summer,” she said.

Coping with the COVID-19 pandemic

According to the AARP study findings, seniors are responding to the increased stress in a variety of ways. About one in four of the respondents reported they are eating comfort foods or “unhealthy foods” like chips and candy more often than before the pandemic. And 27 percent of people 50 and over have increased the time they spend praying or meditating. One in 10 survey respondents reported seeking mental health care in the last year, a third of whom did so specifically because of the pandemic. Overall, 15 percent of older adults said that experiencing the pandemic made them more likely to seek help from a mental health provider if they had concerns.

AARP’s survey also highlighted how the pandemic increased loneliness and isolation among those age 50 and over.  Among older adults, 58 percent reported feeling increased loneliness, and 62 percent were less likely to socialize with friends and family compared to before the pandemic.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues and a former OSMA Trustee. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com

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Herb Weiss has enjoyed a distinguished 41 year career in journalism, earning a national reputation as an expert on aging, health care and medical issues. Over 780 articles that he has authored or coauthored have appeared in national, state and local publications. Governor Gina Raimondo appointed Him to the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on aging. Today, Herb’s weekly newspaper column appears in the Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket call, two North Rhode Island daily newspapers, and will now run in RINewsToday.com. Herb and his wife, Patty Zacks, reside in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

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