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Lockdown loneliness increases the risk of depression in people living with cancer

A new research study finds that loneliness experienced during the UK lockdown increased the risk of depression in people living with cancer. People with cancer who reported being lonely ‘sometimes or ‘quite often’ during the first UK COVID-19 lockdown had a four and a half times (4.5 fold) greater risk of being depressed compared to those who said they were never lonely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rates of depression increased over time for those with cancers of the breast (5%), prostate (4%) and bloods (10%) respectively. This increased risk was greater if these people had reported being depressed before.

As COVID-19 spread around the globe wide-scale public health interventions were implemented internationally to contain the outbreak (e.g., school and business closures) and those with health conditions and vulnerable older adults were asked to stay indoors with reduced social contacts, i.e. shield, as a way of reducing their risk of infection. While isolating from others may help protect them physically, it may be damaging for their mental health something that may be compounded by fact that there was widespread curtailment of many health and cancer related services.

Thus, in normal circumstances living with cancer can be stressful, but due to lockdown they may have found themselves cut off from family and friends, key social and medical services who they may have depended on, they may find themselves even more isolated and at greater risk of depression. This was very evident in those who had blood cancers. This study aimed to see whether rates of depression in people living with cancer were higher during COVID-19 to before it and if this varied with age, gender, marital status, changes to medical services or loneliness.

The study has the following key findings:

This 5%, 4% and 10% increase in rates of new depression in those living with cancer equates to an additional 71,000 additional affected people since the pandemic. During the first COVID-19 lockdown in April 2019, 19.7% of those living with cancer of the breast were categorised as being depressed (5% increase from before the pandemic), those with prostate cancer jumped from 5.2% to 9.1%, while those living with cancer of the bloods increased by 10% going from 18.1% to 28.1%, those with other cancers (e.g. melanoma, liver and lung) were stable at about 13.5%.

While females and those who were older, and not in a relationship had a high risk the strongest contributor to depression in those living with cancer was loneliness experienced during lockdown but not loneliness before it. In fact, family caregivers who reported greater levels of loneliness during lockdown were almost 4.5 times at higher risk of being depressed. Moreover, this was irrespective if they lived alone or not.

As lockdown continues in various forms, the impact of loneliness for those living with cancer will need to be addressed and efforts to alleviate this risk (e.g., use of new technologies, family bubbles, online support groups) will be needed.


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