Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have received a five-year, $9.1 million grant from the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study resilience in older adults before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. The grant also will fund research into the pandemic’s cognitive and emotional effects on older adults, including depression, anxiety and even dementia.
“Our society is in the midst of a natural experiment on the negative effects of stress on cognitive and emotional health,” said principal investigator Eric J. Lenze, MD, the Wallace and Lucille K. Renard Professor of Psychiatry. “Older adults have been hit with a double whammy. On the one hand, they’ve had to take steps to protect themselves from COVID-19 infection, such as staying away from other people. On the other hand, the stresses associated with social isolation can cause cognitive problems and contribute to anxiety and depression.”
Lenze, who directs the university’s Healthy Mind Lab, said the new grant also enables his team to study what makes some older adults more resilient. In particular, the researchers will catalogue the effects of exercise and mindfulness on cognitive, physical and emotional health in the face of the pandemic.
“Specifically, we’re looking at whether two common stress-reduction interventions — exercise and the practice of mindfulness — might make older adults more resilient to the negative effects of social isolation, thereby preserving their cognitive and emotional health, despite what they’ve been going through,” Lenze said.
Before the pandemic began, Lenze and his colleagues recruited almost 600 adults over age 65 for a study in which participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups. Some received educational materials. Another group participated in an exercise program. A third group was asked to engage in stress-reduction, mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation and yoga. Those in the fourth group engaged in exercise and mindfulness techniques.