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Queen’s researchers investigating the impact of COVID-19 on Northern Ireland’s older population

Researchers from Queen’s University Belfast are studying how people aged 50 years and older across Northern Ireland have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on people’s lives, affecting their health, psychological wellbeing, social activity, employment and financial circumstances.

Over the past year, people over 70 years of age with underlying medical conditions were more susceptible and as such were directed to stay indoors, curtail social visits with friends and family, and limit outdoor exercise and activities which for many older adults are part of their everyday routine, wellbeing and quality of life.

Researchers working on the Northern Cohort for the Longitudinal Study of Ageing (NICOLA), from the Centre for Public Health at Queen’s University are analysing data from 5,000 of its participants aged 50 years and over living in Northern Ireland.

Dr Charlotte Neville, NICOLA's Scientific Officer and Senior Research Fellow from the Centre for Public Health at Queen’s University and researcher on the study, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging period worldwide and has impacted us all in some way across Northern Ireland, especially the lives of older people. This research provides a unique opportunity for older adults from across Northern Ireland to document their experience during the period of the pandemic.

“The repercussions of the pandemic are likely to be considerable and long-lasting and therefore it is important we collect this information now to understand the impact COVID-19 has had. The findings will give health authorities, policymakers, researchers, and the public valuable insight into the effects of the pandemic and identify gaps in services for older adults in Northern Ireland in response to the impact of COVID-19.”

The information gathered will determine the full scale of the impact of COVID-19 on a wide number of outcomes including physical and mental health, caring responsibilities, health behaviours, social contact and loneliness.

The research aims to help and support both local and national health systems and policymakers to strengthen and improve the national response to COVID-19 in the longer term and will help inform future policy in relation to further outbreaks or the long-term consequences of the current outbreak.

To gather their results, a questionnaire has been posted to a nationally representative sample of over 5,000 older adults who are currently participants in the NICOLA study.

The questionnaire will capture information about the effect of the pandemic and public health measures on physical, psychological and mental health, work and financial circumstances, computer and internet use, caring responsibilities, social connections, loneliness, health and social care, and health behaviours during the period of COVID-19.

The information collected from the survey will be linked to existing social, economic and health information previously gathered from participants as part of the main NICOLA study. This will allow the researchers to compare information collected during the pandemic with that collected prior to the pandemic thus helping them to understand early risks and determinants of susceptibility to the outcomes of COVID-19.

Professor Frank Kee, Scientific Director of the NICOLA study and Director of the Centre for Public Health at Queen’s University, said: “NICOLA is Northern Ireland’s largest public health study. In 2012, this population-based study was set up to explore why and how certain social, economic and biological factors are changing the lives of older people in Northern Ireland. NICOLA has a representative sample of 8,500 older adults, which means that we can generalise the information to the entire population because of the methods we use to recruit the participant sample. As such, NICOLA is in a unique position to examine how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed circumstances.

“Furthermore, comparing our data with that from other longitudinal studies across the UK, will enable us to explore how COVID has impacted Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK. NICOLA is and will continue to be an invaluable data resource for understanding what it means to be an older person in Northern Ireland.”

As well as informing local policy, NICOLA is also partnering with a National UK Longitudinal Linkage Collaboration initiative led by the University of Bristol and involving 14 other large population-based studies across the UK to examine the longer-term impact of COVID-19 across the whole of the UK.

If you have received the NICOLA COVID-19 questionnaire and have any questions about the research, please email the NICOLA team at nicola-research@qub.ac.uk 

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