Study to examine possible effects of COVID-19 on dementia risk in older adults

In addition to its clear impact on physical health, COVID-19 may also have adverse consequences for brain health. Therefore, researchers at Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute (RRI) are investigating the possible effects of COVID-19 and infection prevention measures on dementia risk in older adults.

The pandemic may increase the risk of developing dementia in two ways. First, through the virus' hallmark respiratory symptoms, there may be a decrease in oxygen going to the brain, which could have negative consequences and cause damage. Emerging research from around the world is showing that being hospitalized and on a respirator has a negative impact on the brain."

Dr. Jennifer Ryan, Senior Scientist, Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute

Adds Dr. Ryan, "Second, the infection prevention measure of physical distancing may result in social isolation for some individuals. This could lead to a depressive episode, and we know that depression increases the risk for mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and dementia later on."

The effects of the pandemic on brain health cannot be ignored. Someone who was doing cognitively well before the pandemic hit might end up in the hospital with COVID-19 or experience a depressive episode due to social isolation, which could put them on the trajectory to dementia.

In this study, the researchers are making bi-weekly phone calls to healthy older adults living in the community and asking them about their mental health, their exercise and socialization levels, and their exposure to COVID-19. They are also testing these older adults' cognitive functions, like memory. The study is part of a larger research project looking at the factors that may predict which older adults ultimately develop MCI or dementia.

"This study will increase our understanding of the risks posed to older adults' brain health during the pandemic," says Dr. Rosanna Olsen, scientist at the RRI. "The results should also help identify ways in which this group can be supported during these unprecedented times, for instance through virtual social interactions, exercise programs or other COVID-safe activities."

The study examining the factors that predict who will develop dementia is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). With additional funding for the COVID-19 portion of their research, the scientists could facilitate more calls to more participants within a shorter window of time, and share their results with the scientific community and general population more quickly.

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