All over the world, people have experienced the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their well-being. However, the effect was not the same for everyone. We know that physical health and mental health are influenced partly by environmental factors, for example the COVID-19 pandemic, but partly by nature (genetics).
The COVID-19 pandemic was a unique opportunity for researchers and the scientific community to come together to form the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative that collaborates on research. Entire communities were suddenly and simultaneously exposed to both the virus and the social changes needed to adapt to government shutdowns.
We have investigated the interaction between genes and the impact of the epidemic on the well-being of individuals over time. We found that people’s confidence in the power to shut down was linked to their genetics, and it also became steadily more important for their happiness over the course of the pandemic in 2020.
Data were collected from 27,537 participants from the Lifelines Study, which has followed 167,000 individuals from multiple generations in the three northern provinces of the Netherlands (Drenthe, Friesland, Groningen) since 2006.
The study collects detailed information and biological samples from its participants. We sent out questionnaires asking participants if they had COVID-19, about their general health and medication use, and social demographics such as income, education, well-being and lifestyle.
Genetics and COVID
It is known that many behavioral and psychological traits are influenced by parts of our DNA. For example, there are 102 known ways that different DNA arrangements can increase the risk of depression. For our analyses, we gave each participant a so-called polygenic score that reflected how likely they were to possess a particular trait, based on their DNA (their genetic predisposition), and compared this to their answers in the questionnaire.
Results such as these cannot predict the behavior of individuals, but they can be used to see if groups of people with different genetic tendencies respond differently when facing adversity. For example, people who were genetically more likely to be satisfied with life reported higher quality of life in the questionnaires, as expected.
In total, we found 288 responses to the questionnaire that could be correlated with the genetics of the participants. In particular, we found that trust in government and willingness to comply with COVID-19 lockdown rules are closely related to the genetic predispositions of the participants.
How has the influence of genetics changed?
We first sent out the survey weeks after COVID-19 was first detected in the Netherlands and have continued to send the same questions throughout the pandemic at least once a month. This allowed us to compare the effects of polygenic scores at different time points.
We found that the genetic contribution to well-being was not fixed but could change over time.
The most obvious effect of participants’ genetics was the life satisfaction trait. Here we found that over the course of the pandemic, genes became more important and the influence of external factors decreased.
There are multiple explanations for this effect. The social isolation imposed by COVID-19 containment measures means that people have less control over the environmental factors that can affect their quality of life. Alternatively, it may also be the case that some genetic factors lead to resistance to stress allowing some people to better deal with the prolonged psychological effects of the pandemic.
Our results demonstrate the importance of integrating longitudinal data to study psychiatric illness and other psychiatric features so that we can better understand how to help people with these conditions.
Some people have done better than others during the COVID-19 pandemic because of genetics
Introduction of the conversation
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