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Older people’s resilience during pandemic focus of $9 million grant

Research to explore the effects of social isolation on cognitive, emotional health

by Jim DrydenOctober 25, 2021

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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.

About 80% of the people who participated in that study have continued to attend exercise and mindfulness sessions online. “So we won’t be recruiting any new volunteers for this new study, and what’s important about that is that since these people were studied before the pandemic began, we really can test whether these practices, such as exercise and mindfulness, provided benefits against stress and social isolation due to lockdowns and restrictions related to COVID-19,” Lenze explained.

As the study proceeds, the researchers will perform cognitive tests on the participants. They’ll also conduct MRI scans to look at the effects of stress on subjects’ brains, as well as to investigate the potential protective effects of mindfulness and exercise. The research team also will measure the production of amyloid in the brains of study participants. Amyloid is one of the proteins that clumps together in the plaques that characterize Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, they’ll use something called DNA methylation to measure cellular aging in study subjects.

In addition to Lenze and other researchers from Washington University, the study also will involve scientists from the University of Connecticut and the University of California, San Diego.

“We would expect that mindfulness and exercise may have beneficial effects on brain health and on resilience,” Lenze said, “but as they say here in Missouri, ‘the Show Me State,’ it’s not enough just to believe these things might happen, we want to learn whether or not they’re true.”

This work is supported by the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Grant number R01 AG072694

Washington University School of Medicine’s 1,700 faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is a leader in medical research, teaching and patient care, consistently ranking among the top medical schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Jim retired from Washington University in 2023. While at WashU, Jim covered psychiatry and neuroscience, pain and opioid research, orthopedics, diabetes, obesity, nutrition and aging. He formerly worked at KWMU (now St. Louis Public Radio) as a reporter and anchor, and his stories from the Midwest also were broadcast on NPR. Jim hosted the School of Medicine's Show Me the Science podcast, which highlights the outstanding research, education and clinical care underway at the School of Medicine. He has a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.