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Although many older adults demonstrate high levels of resilience, they are also more prone to social isolation and loneliness than any other age group. Having strong social connections is especially important for mental health and well-being as we age, and is associated with lower instances of depression and anxiety.

Simon Fraser University (SFU) professor of mental health and aging Theodore D. Cosco researches a range of factors that promote healthy aging and resilience in older adults, from digital interventions to physical activity. He leads the Precision Mental Health Lab, a transdisciplinary research group dedicated to community-engaged and innovative technological approaches to improve well-being across all age groups.

One of his major research projects is studying data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA). Cosco is a co-investigator on the CLSA, a national, long-term study of more than 50,000 Canadians who were 45 to 85 years old when the program began in 2009. Over 160 researchers from 26 universities across Canada are involved in the CLSA.

Cosco and colleagues, including three PhD students he supervises:  Lucy Kervin, Shawna Hopper, and Indira Riadi have found that during the coronavirus pandemic, the decreased ability to participate in social and physical activity was associated with increased risk of depression and anxiety in older adults.

These findings are outlined in Worsened ability to engage in social and physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic and older adults’ mental health, published in Innovation in Aging.


We spoke to professor Cosco about his research.


What did your research reveal about older adults’ diminished ability to engage in physical and social activities during the coronavirus pandemic?

Our team used data from 24,108 participants surveyed during the first nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic and found roughly 22% screened positively for depression and 5% for anxiety.

Generally, older adults who reported worsened ability to participate in social and physical activities during the pandemic had poorer mental health outcomes than those whose ability remained the same or improved. We also found that participating in these activities had a buffering effect on depression and anxiety.

How does this research apply now that the pandemic is behind us? Do you have recommendations?

Our findings highlight the importance of fostering social and physical activity resources to mitigate the negative mental health impacts of future pandemics or other major life stressors that may affect the mental health of older adults. Beyond the pandemic these results highlight the importance of staying socially and physically active. You do not need to be socializing seven nights a week, nor do you need to be running marathons. Doing anything is better than nothing, so finding ways to integrate socializing and exercising into one’s life is an excellent strategy. Pick up the phone, walk to the shops, or find a way that you can integrate activity into one’s own life.

How do you approach the study of vast amounts of data from the CLSA? Do you have specific research questions to investigate, or does the study reveal topics that you want to pursue?

When working with large datasets, it is crucial to understand the types of data included, their collection dates and their sources. Once familiar with the available data, you can delve into current research and literature to formulate hypotheses. With extensive datasets, specificity in your initial hypotheses and deliberate in your analysis approaches are vital. Because of the dataset's size and the significant statistical power it provides, running numerous models to explore every possible outcome can often lead to “statistically significant” findings that occur by chance. This practice, known as “fishing” or “data dredging,” is discouraged because it may result in misleading associations. Therefore, it's important for us to be very purposeful in testing our hypotheses to avoid these issues.

In a previous Scholarly Impact of the Week, you discussed how during the pandemic older adults and their families quickly adopted the use of technology to increase connectedness. Is this trend still going strong, and do you have new insights on technology and older people?  

During the pandemic, older adults and their families rapidly embraced technology to stay connected, a trend that remains strong today. This period really spotlighted both the advantages and limitations of our current technology. It became clear that tech companies need to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach. Products specifically designed with older adults in mind—taking into account their unique needs and preferences tend to be more successful. These intentionally crafted tools are not only more widely accepted but also have a more significant impact. The pandemic has shown us the importance of such tailored technology solutions in enhancing social connectedness for older populations.


For more: See professor Cosco’s previous Scholarly Impact of the Week article, Understanding the impacts of COVID-19 on older adults, and visit the Precision Mental Health Lab web page.


SFU's Scholarly Impact of the Week series does not reflect the opinions or viewpoints of the university, but those of the scholars. The timing of articles in the series is chosen weeks or months in advance, based on a published set of criteria. Any correspondence with university or world events at the time of publication is purely coincidental.

For more information, please see SFU's Code of Faculty Ethics and Responsibilities and the statement on academic freedom.