As part of a $2.2 million dollar grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, psychiatry researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine announce the launch of Widowed Elders Lifestyle after Loss, or WELL, a depression prevention study for older adults who are grieving the loss of a spouse or life partner.
Depression is common in the months following the death of a spouse, and it may increase older adults’ risk for cardiovascular disease, dementia and earlier death. Changes in day and nighttime activity are also common, which can negatively impact the body’s biological clock, or circadian rhythm. These disruptions increase the likelihood of negative health outcomes, including depression.
WELL aims to recruit 150 participants aged 60 and older, and an additional 100 participants whose spouse or partner died from COVID-19. This is one of the first National Institutes of Health-funded studies to examine depression and other health outcomes among older adults who lost a spouse or partner to COVID-19.
Study participation is contactless, and all assessments are conducted virtually or over the phone.
“Depressed older adults often feel no reason to wake up, eat meals or engage in activity on a regular schedule,” said Dr. Sarah T. Stahl, assistant professor of psychiatry and clinical and translational science at Pitt’s School of Medicine, and lead researcher of WELL. “Grieving and healing after a loss is already a difficult process, but the pandemic has intensified bereavement by disrupting the mourning rituals. Unfortunately, many people have now lost a spouse to COVID-19, and we think it’s especially important to try to intervene and provide support to this group.”
WELL will last five years, and participants will be randomized to one of two groups. The first will use a website to monitor their sleep, meals and physical activity daily for 12 weeks. They also receive support from a health coach who helps drive lifestyle change. The other group will receive weekly phone calls from study staff who will provide simple recommendations.
In addition to comparing interventions for reducing depression, the researchers will also explore exactly how the circadian rest-activity rhythm can be used to understand depression risk in older spousally-bereaved adults.
“We believe simple changes to adults’ daily routine can promote emotional health during this difficult time and decrease feelings of depression,” Stahl added.
Other Pitt researchers include Dr. Stephen Smagula, from Pitt’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Science, and Dr. Bruce Rollman, UPMC Endowed Chair in General Internal Medicine. WELL is a collaboration among researchers at Pitt, the University of Arizona at Tucson and Emory University.