How Might Genetics Affect Our Well-Being During the Pandemic?

genetics pandemic well-being

MR.Cole_Photographer / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers found links between well-being and genetic predisposition during the pandemic.
  • For instance, those with genetic predispositions to neuroticism, depression, and schizophrenia were more likely to report feeling tense, tired, and worried.
  • The absence of environmental interactions due to pandemic lockdowns may have made the effects of genetics more pronounced.

Why do some people seem to cope with pandemic stress better than others? Genetics may play a role, according to a new study by the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands.

Researchers found that people who have a genetic predisposition to neuroticism, depression, and schizophrenia were more likely to report feeling tense, tired, and worried during the pandemic.

Based on the data, genetics have a more prominent impact on wellbeing overtime, potentially due to social isolation. However, researchers suggested that environmental interactions and social support could affect how people respond to stress.

Complex interplays between genes and the environment can change mental health outcomes. For example, certain genes have been found to predispose people to depressive episodes, but only when they experience multiple stressful life events.

For the study, researchers analyzed genetic data from more than 27,000 residents in the Netherlands. The participants responded to a survey about how they were doing throughout a 10-month period since March 2020. Then, the researchers examined whether the respondents shared any genetic patterns.

As the pandemic went on, people who carry genes associated with higher life satisfaction didn’t show the same perceived decline in quality of life as others, according to Robert Warmerdam, a PhD student and lead author of the study.

“This shows that genetic predisposition has increased in importance over the course of the pandemic,” the authors wrote.

What This Means For You

Genetic studies increasingly reveal not only how genes may affect us, but how they are constantly interacting with our environments. It may therefore be more helpful to think of our genetic inheritance as probabilistic and mutually interdependent with the environment, rather than deterministic.

Seeing Genes as Tendencies, Not Rules

Although genetics plays a role in certain traits and characteristics, Warmerdam said, it isn’t destiny.

“We shouldn’t underestimate the effect of the environments in which we grow up and the ability we as individuals have to change the way we behave,” he said.

During pandemic lockdowns, limited social interactions meant that people had less control over their environmental factors, which could have made the effects of genetics more pronounced.

For instance, past research has found that people who carry the 5-HTTLPR gene are more likely to have depressive episodes depending on stress or the lack of support.

The new study also suggested people who carry the genes associated with higher educational attainment were less likely to adhere to COVID-19 safety measures, such as washing hands for 20 seconds.

However, the study relied on self-reports of well-being rather than comprehensive mental health assessments, which introduced potential errors. And out of all the participants, only 288 questionnaire responses were found to have genetic associations.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Warmerdam CAR, Wiersma HH, Lanting P, et al. Increased genetic contribution to wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemicPLoS Genet. 2022;18(5):e1010135. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1010135

  2. Colodro-Conde L, Couvy-Duchesne B, Zhu G, et al. A direct test of the diathesis–stress model for depressionMol Psychiatry. 2018;23(7):1590:1590–1596. doi:10.1038/mp.2017.130

  3. Gericke N, Carver R, Castéra J, Evangelista NAM, Marre CC, El-Hani CN. Exploring relationships among belief in genetic determinism, genetics knowledge, and social factors. Sci Educ (Dordr). 2017;26(10):1223-1259. doi:10.1007/s11191-017-9950-y

  4. Bleys D, Luyten P, Soenens B, Claes S. Gene-environment interactions between stress and 5-HTTLPR in depression: a meta-analytic update. J Affect Disord. 2018;226:339-345. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2017.09.050

By Sarah Simon
Sarah Simon is a bilingual multimedia journalist with a degree in psychology. She has previously written for publications including The Daily Beast and Rantt Media.