The midlife crisis 2.0: How the pandemic has affected over-50s

British adults experienced the highest-ever levels of poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.


The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on people’s lives across the globe, affecting various aspects of daily living, such as social interactions, financial stability, and mental health. A recent study suggests that individuals over 50 may have experienced a second midlife crisis triggered by the pandemic.

Researchers examined data from over 16,000 adults born in 1946, 1958, and 1970, collected over four decades, as part of three British birth cohort studies. The participants’ psychological distress levels were assessed through repeated questions measuring symptoms of depression and anxiety. The participants were also surveyed at three points during the pandemic’s first year: May 2020, September/October 2020, and February/March 2021.

By autumn 2020, individuals born between 1958 and 1970 experienced higher levels of psychological distress than before in their adult lives. However, those born in 1946 experienced similar levels of distress to their previous midlife peak in their early 50s. Women had more mental health difficulties than men across all age groups, increasing pre-existing gender inequalities in mental health.   

This unforeseen second midlife mental health crisis may disproportionately affect women and exacerbate the onset of chronic cognitive and other related health difficulties. These findings are deeply concerning as anxiety and depression is among the top leading causes of disease worldwide, with mental health problems being closely linked to numerous physical health problems.

Growing evidence indicates that mental health outcomes for the population have worsened since the pandemic began. It is unknown how much these changes have affected the typical age-related trends in psychological distress, where distress usually rises until midlife and decreases afterward for both sexes. The aim was to analyze whether pre-pandemic long-term psychological distress trajectories were disrupted during the pandemic and whether these changes differed by cohort and sex.

The study used data from three nationally representative birth cohorts in Great Britain to analyze whether the pandemic disrupted pre-existing psychological distress trajectories and whether changes differed by age and sex. Scientists used validated self-reported questionnaires and a multilevel growth curve modeling approach to analyze distress trajectories. By autumn 2020, distress levels had surpassed pre-pandemic levels, with more significant increases among younger cohorts and women. The study suffered from high attrition rates and may need to be more generalizable to other UK populations or countries.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted pre-existing long-term psychological distress trajectories of adults born between 1946 and 1970, especially among women, resulting in the highest levels of distress recorded in up to 40 years of follow-up data. This could impact future trends of morbidity, disability, and mortality due to common mental health problems.

The findings of this study suggest that the pandemic has had a significant impact on the mental health and well-being of individuals over the age of 50, and this crisis may have long-term consequences on their lives. It highlights the need for mental health support and resources to help individuals navigate this challenging time and emerge stronger and more resilient.

“We know that anxiety and depression are among the 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.”said lead author Dr. Darío Moreno-Agostino from the ESRC Centre for Society and Mental Health.

Journal Reference:

  1. Darío Moreno-Agostino ,Helen L. Fisher,Alissa Goodman, Stephani L. Hatch et al. Long-term psychological distress trajectories and the COVID-19 pandemic in three British birth cohorts: A multi-cohort study. PLoS Medicine. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1004145
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