Science Spotlight

Impact of COVID-19 on older women

From the VoPham Group, Public Health Sciences Division

COVID-19 has affected the lives of billions of people worldwide. In the US, as of April 2022, more than 80 million people contracted COVID-19 and nearly a million people have died from this virus. For the elderly, being a part of a vulnerable population, older age (75 years and older) is one of the many risk factors for severe illness from COVID-19. Currently, there are few publications on the personal and economic consequences associated with the pandemic in older adults. Therefore, Women’s Health Initiative participants were surveyed on their experiences of the pandemic. The VoPham group, from the Public Health Sciences Division, described the survey methods utilized and reported selected population characteristics and survey responses to describe the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic on the lives of older women. The study was published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences.

Dr. VoPham elaborated on the assessment of the survey, “The Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) is an ongoing prospective cohort study that recruited 161,808 postmenopausal women from 1993 to 1998. From June to October 2020, participants were surveyed to assess health and well-being, living situations, lifestyle, health care, and self-reported COVID-19 testing, treatment, and preventive behaviors.” The participants’ ZIP Codes were used to map the geographical distribution of survey responses to the question  “How concerned are you about the COVID-19 pandemic?”

A total of 49,695 participants (average age 83.6 years) completed this survey. Responses were collected from March to October 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic, although the impact of the pandemic (e.g., lockdown measures) varied from location to location across the US. WHI participants were more likely to report very good or good levels of well-being, but in lower frequency in the fall compared to the summer. Respondents reported being very concerned about the pandemic (more commonly reported among urban residents), with many participating in preventive behaviors including wearing a face mask (which were more commonly practiced in the summer compared to the fall). The most common disruption in living arrangements included having family or friends move in, although a higher proportion of respondents in the fall compared to the summer reported moving into a care facility and/or having their care provider come to help. Many women reported changes in medication and health care access, which included delays in getting prescriptions filled and health care appointment conversions to telephone or online (the latter more commonly reported among urban residents).

The majority of WHI participants reported high levels of well-being. Previous studies have reported that older adults have better emotional control and positive affective experiences than younger adults. Therefore, they may be less likely to be affected by mental health outcomes than younger adults, especially during the pandemic. To the VoPham Group’s knowledge, this paper presents findings from one of the first surveys conducted to describe the impact of the pandemic among a large cohort of US older women. 

covid map

Concern regarding the COVID-19 pandemic among Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) participants from March to October 2020. The mode survey response reported by WHI participants residing in each ZIP Code is shown. Geographic areas where participants were not at all concerned are shown in blue. Locations where participants were somewhat or very concerned are shown in orange.

This research was supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, US Department of Health and Human Services.

Fred Hutch/UW Cancer Consortium members Trang VoPham, Holly Harris, and Garnet Anderson contributed to this work.

VoPham T, Harris HR, Tinker LF, Manson JA, Meliker JR, Wassertheil-Smoller S, Shadyab AH, Saquib N, Anderson GL, Shumaker SA. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on older women in the Women’s Health Initiative. The Journals of Gerontology: Series A. 2022 Mar 3.