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Arnold School of Public Health

Study reveals quality of life declines due to COVID—related social isolation among older adults

November 11, 2022| Erin Bluvas,

Researchers from the Aging Brain Cohort (ABC) Study have published findings from a study examining the effects of social isolation among older adults during South Carolina’s month-long stay-at-home/shelter-in-place orders during the spring of 2020. Comparing quality-of-life data from a subset of the larger ABC Study both before and after the one-month period, they found this social isolation led to a highly significant decrease in overall quality of life for the participants – providing evidence for yet another negative impact from the pandemic. They published their findings in PLOS ONE.

“Prolonged periods of social isolation are known to have significant negative health consequences and reduce quality of life – an effect that is particularly pronounced in older populations,” says Sara Sayers, research associate for ABC and the Center for the Study of Aphasia Recovery (C-STAR), which are both led by communication sciences and disorders professor/Vice President for the Office of Research Julius Fridriksson. “Despite what we know about these impacts, stay-at-home/shelter-in-place orders have been a key component of the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

With this study, the authors* aimed to better understand the specific effects of social isolation on this historic, once-in-a-lifetime event as well as potential risks and protective factors that may have influenced these effects. Participants in this study included 62 adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

These individuals are part of the ABC Study’s 800 South Carolinians who provide demographic/lifestyle information (e.g., diet, sleep, gender, income, race, education, language, physical activity) and participate in testing (e.g., MRIs, blood samples) to help ABC researchers determine why some brains are more resistant to age-related decline than others. The project was launched in 2019 as one of USC’s Eight Excellence Initiatives.

In addition to revealing a steep decline in overall quality of life, the team’s analyses found this effect to be pervasive and fairly uniform in all subfactors they measured. For example, participants underwent similar decreases in domains related to achievement, self-expression, relationships and surroundings. Further, older participants within the 20-year age span and those with higher mental and physical health prior to isolation experienced significantly greater decreases in quality of life (across all domains) compared to their counterparts.

“Our results demonstrate that even a short period of social isolation can affect quality of life, that the magnitude of this effect varies as a function of age, and that, surprisingly, individuals with higher pre-isolation mental and physical health appear to suffer greater decreases in quality of life,” Newman-Norlund says. “These findings highlight the critical importance of understanding the relationship between COVID-19-related social isolation and quality of life and may be useful to health professionals designing policy approaches to minimizing the negative consequences of social isolation.”

*Authors include Roger Newman-Norlund, Sarah Newman-Norlund, Sara Sayers, Alexander McLain, Nicholas Riccardi, Julius Fridriksson


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