New results from the FINGER study show the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic in older adults

How have social distancing measures affected older individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic? Recent research led by Prof. Miia Kivipelto’s team provides some important insights – there were several negative effects but at the same time many lifestyles and behaviours did not substantially change during the first wave of the pandemic in Finland, and some even improved.  

The study evaluated a population of Finnish older persons who have increased risk of developing or have cognitive impairment (Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability – FINGER trial). A postal survey was sent in June 2020 to 859 FINGER participants. By September 2020, 613 (71%) participants responded. Mean age of the participants was 78 years, 32% lived alone, and 80% had at least one chronic condition. The majority (three quarters) adopted some distancing practices during the first months of the pandemic.

Several pandemic-related changes were reported in lifestyle and health, for example:

  • 34% reported a decrease in physical activity.
  • Many individuals had less contact with friends (55%) and family (31%).
  • 21% reported more feelings of loneliness.
  • 15% felt that their memory had been getting worse during the pandemic.
  • Older people and those living alone were more susceptible to negative changes.
  • Cancellations in dental healthcare (43%), home aid (30%), and rehabilitative services (53%) were common.

On the positive side:

  • Many individuals were able to use digital tools to keep in contact with family and friends.
  • A large proportion of people were able to keep up healthy eating habits (with many increasing their vegetable and fruit consumption) and in general their self-rated health and quality of life remained stable.

As the pandemic is ongoing, it is important to identify factors that may help older individuals to maintain healthy lifestyles during lockdowns and quarantine and to follow-up these individuals to see how they are coping with the 2nd wave of the pandemic. Can we identify individuals who need more support during the pandemic, such as those living alone, to target them for interventions to support them? Research into changes in lifestyle risk factors as a result of the pandemic is important because these risk factors are relevant for brain health and for several chronic diseases and can also play a role in viral infections

-Miia Kivipelto, Principal Investigator of the FINGER trial and the Scientific Coordinator of EU-FINGERS

Given the global scale of the pandemic, the survey used for the FINGER participants has been further developed and adapted to be used in other countries, and has been proposed to the other members of the EU-FINGERS Consortium, as well as to the WW-FINGERS Network. This global initiative is the WW-FINGERS SARS-CoV-2 survey, which is linked to the WHO Global Forum on Neurology and COVID-19.

It will be interesting to compare the results with other countries doing the same survey, including members of the EU-FINGERS Consortium (Hungary, Sweden, The Netherlands), and more globally countries from the World-Wide FINGERS Network. We use a common methodology (i.e., WW-FINGERS SARS-CoV-2 survey) to learn how the pandemic is affecting the older adults in different cultural and economic settings.

-Francesca Mangialasche, Assistant Professor and Scientific Coordinator of the WW-FINGERS SARS-CoV-2 initiative

The article “Changes in Lifestyle, Behaviours, and Risk Factors for Cognitive Impairment in Older Persons During the First Wave of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Pandemic in Finland: Results From the FINGER Study” is published in Frontiers in Psychiatry. You can read the article here, alongside a collection of research articles on the theme of the “Cognitive, Psychological, and Psychiatric Consequences of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic in the Population of Older Persons with Cognitive Impairment, Dementia, and/or Neuropsychiatric Disorders”.

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