How is the pandemic impacting the mental health of older adults?

April 21, 2021

Three pre-med students started a research project exploring how the global pandemic affects the mental state of patients ages 65+. Their on-going research project is among the 22 virtual student presentations in CASL's 2021 Sargon Partners Undergraduate Research Showcase.

From the middle of the emergency room, three pre-med UM-Dearborn students saw how COVID physically impacted people who were coming into the hospital. But they wanted to learn more about what they couldn’t see — specifically, how the global pandemic affects the mental state of patients ages 65+, one of COVID’s most vulnerable populations.

“There is a clear connection between mental wellbeing and physical being. An unhealthy mind will lead to a decline in physical wellbeing,” said senior Hazem Alata, who is studying Biological Sciences. “Depression can lead to an increased chance in developing chronic diseases such as heart disease and can suppress the immune system, leading to frequent sickness. A suppressed immune system is the last thing we want during this pandemic.”

Photo of senior Mohammad Zaher
Photo of senior Mohammad Zaher
Mohammad Zaher

Alata says being at risk of serious side effects or death from the virus would weigh heavily on anyone, especially during these times of prolonged social isolation and social distancing. But what does the data say? Alata, along with his classmates Behavior and Biological Sciences junior Alexander Schreck and Biochemistry senior Mohammad Zaher were interested in finding out.

In addition to professional experience, they also had a personal interest. Zaher says, “You think about your family, and the people you haven’t been able to see because you want to keep your grandparents or older people in your life safe. But what effect has this time had on their mental wellbeing?”

While taking part in campus’ yearlong Emergency Medicine Research Associate Program (EMRAP) at St. Mary Mercy Hospital System, the students started a research study focused on the impact of COVID on geriatric depression.

Photo of junior Alex Schreck
Photo of junior Alex Schreck
Alex Schreck

Advised by St. Mary Mercy Hospital System’s Emergency Medicine Physician Daniel Keyes, who also teaches at UM-Dearborn, the trio’s project is among the 22 virtual student presentations in College of Arts, Sciences, & Letters 2021 Sargon Partners Undergraduate Research Showcase Presentations.

Zaher says presentation is a key aspect of the research process to let others know about the work being done — and they want to get the word out. “Unfortunately, the pandemic and the effects of it are far from over, and geriatric depression is not going anywhere either. We hope that this project can lead to better care and save lives.”Schreck says St. Mary Mercy Hospital’s Emergency Department conducts a short-form geriatric depression screening (GDS-5) as intake protocol, which the team reviewed to compare pre-pandemic answers to today.

Photo of senior Hazem Alata, CASL pre-med student
Photo of senior Hazem Alata, CASL pre-med student
Hazem Alata

Through a retrospective chart analysis of two time periods, the students reviewed a combined 600-plus patient screenings.And the data collected so far confirms their concerns.

“The severity of the depression and suicidal ideation incidences increased during the pandemic time period,” Schreck says. “We cannot quantify the increase until we receive all of our data, but it is very clear that we are seeing many more patients scoring a 4 or 5 on the GDS-5 which indicates possible moderate to severe depression.” Schreck, Alata and Zaher say there is more to learn — they will continue their geriatric depression work throughout the summer.

Outside of COVID’s impact, the pre-med team also wants medical facilities to understand the importance of screening tools. For example, depression screenings are currently not required for emergency rooms. But the group says it’s a valuable tool that lets medical professionals know which patients need mental wellness resources. And, if noted in the chart, a hospital social worker can follow up with the patient after discharge.

“Depression was already prevalent among older populations, and with COVID it’s more severe. 

When experiencing loneliness and isolation, a person checking in may be what’s needed for someone to take a first step toward better overall wellbeing,” Zahar says. 

Schrek says his research experience at St. Mary Mercy Hospital System was only a year long, but it’s something that will stay with him as he approaches taking the MCAT this summer and beyond.

“This project was the cherry on top of a great experience. It’s given me an understanding of protocol and tools needed to conduct research and how research can benefit people,” he says. “What we’ve learned here will stay with us throughout medical school and into practice." 

Alata, Schreck and Zaher want to thank Dr. Keyes, Dr. Michelle Moccia, St. Mary Mercy Hospital physicians and staff, their fellow EMRAP chiefs and associates, and UM-Dearborn Health Professions Advising Director Tahnee  C.H. Prokopow for the experience and guidance they’ve been given.

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