Impact of forced displacement during World War II on the present-day mental health of the elderly: a population-based study

Int Psychogeriatr. 2009 Aug;21(4):748-53. doi: 10.1017/S1041610209009107. Epub 2009 May 11.


Background: The effects of traumatization among the elderly is a neglected topic in research and clinical settings. Forced displacement of civilians is one of the main traumatic features of modern armed conflict. Roughly 12 million German people were displaced in World War II (WWII) and to our knowledge there has been no representative study investigating the mental health outcomes of such trauma in the elderly population. The survey assessed whether current depression, anxiety, resilience and life satisfaction were significantly associated with forced displacement in WWII.

Methods: A nationwide representative face-to-face household survey was conducted in Germany. A representative sample of the German population aged 61 years or older (N = 1513 participants, N = 239 displaced in WWII) was approached using 258 sample points. Measurements included depressive symptoms (PHQ-2), anxiety (GAD-7), resilience (RS-11), general and domain-specific life satisfaction (FLZ(M)) and sociodemographic variables.

Results: Forced displacement in WWII is significantly associated with higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of resilience and life satisfaction 60 years later. In regression analyses, forced displacement in WWII significantly predicted current anxiety (beta 0.07; p < 0.01), life satisfaction (beta -0.06; p < 0.05) and resilience (beta -0.07; p < 0.01).

Conclusion: To our knowledge this is the first nationwide representative survey to examine the late-life effects of forced displacement, particularly of persons displaced during WWII in Germany. Further research is needed to identify mediating variables and to evaluate psychotherapeutic interventions in elderly trauma survivors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Anxiety Disorders / diagnosis
  • Anxiety Disorders / epidemiology
  • Anxiety Disorders / psychology
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Depressive Disorder / diagnosis
  • Depressive Disorder / epidemiology
  • Depressive Disorder / psychology
  • Female
  • Germany
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Quality of Life / psychology
  • Refugees / psychology
  • Refugees / statistics & numerical data*
  • Resilience, Psychological
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / diagnosis
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / epidemiology*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology
  • World War II*