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," says Dr. Jennifer Ryan, senior scientist at the RRI. "Emerging research from around the world is showing that being hospitalized and on a respirator has a negative impact on the brain."
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.
Baycrest is a global leader in geriatric residential living, healthcare, research, innovation and education, with a special focus on brain health and aging. Baycrest is home to a robust research and innovation network, including one of the world's top research institutes in cognitive neuroscience, the Rotman Research Institute; the scientific headquarters of the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging, Canada's largest national dementia research initiative; and the Baycrest-powered Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation, a solution accelerator focused on driving innovation in the aging and brain health sector. Fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, Baycrest provides excellent care for older adults combined with an extensive clinical training program for the next generation of healthcare professionals. Through these initiatives, Baycrest has remained at the forefront of the fight to defeat dementia as our organization works to create a world where every older adult enjoys a life of purpose, inspiration and fulfilment. Founded in 1918 as the Toronto Jewish Old Folks Home, Baycrest continues to embrace the long-standing tradition of all great Jewish healthcare institutions to improve the well-being of people in their local communities and around the globe. For more information please visit: http://www.baycrest.org
About Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute
The Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest is a premier international centre for the study of human brain function. Through generous support from private donors and funding agencies, the institute is helping to illuminate the causes of cognitive decline in seniors, identify promising approaches to treatment and lifestyle practices that will protect brain health longer in the lifespan.