Category: School of Nursing

Implications of COVID-19 Pandemic on Sleep and Cognitive Function
Xiaopeng Ji, assistant professor in the School of Nursing, conducted research on students ages 18 - 21 to analyze sleep quality and measure the capabilities of their executive function. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Ji continued her research to determine how such a crisis impacted sleep and executive function.

Implications of COVID-19 Pandemic on Sleep and Cognitive Function

December 22, 2021 Written by Colin Heffinger | Photo by Ashley Barnas

Consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have been particularly hard for the mental and emotional health of late adolescents and young adults, who were pushed to face various challenges including quickly adopting a virtual learning structure and social distancing throughout the nation. An assistant professor at the University of Delaware has collected data before and during the pandemic to analyze its impacts on reducing sleep quality and ultimately worsening executive dysfunction in young adults.

Executive function is the collective brain operation used to empower planning, focus, memory organization, time management, problem solving and multitasking in everyday life. Executive dysfunction is used to describe the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional difficulties with managing those skills. Executive dysfunction typically worsens in response to continuous external stress that factors into everyday life decisions and mental functionality.

Xiaopeng Ji, assistant professor in the School of Nursing and principle investigator of the research article Sufficient sleep attenuates COVID-19 pandemic-related executive dysfunction in late adolescents and young adults, was studying forty students from ages 18 - 21 to analyze sleep quality and measure the capabilities of their executive function. Jennifer Saylor, associate dean of faculty and student affairs for the School of Nursing, and F. Sayako Earle, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, served as co-authors of the research article.

Ji continued her research through the pandemic to determine how a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic affected sleep and executive function. This provided an opportunity to evaluate the role of sleep-in pandemic-related changes in executive function. Late adolescents and young adults experienced a larger decline in executive function compared with pre-pandemic functionality.

Utilizing 7-day sleep logs and the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI), Ji also explored the variations in sleep timing, duration, and quality. From there, she was able to use further tests to determine how these factors affected the changes in executive functionality of this age group. Ultimately, high quality sleep operated as a protective factor against impacts of a social crisis.

“This population has the greatest changes in sleep quality during the pandemic,” Ji stated. “Their executive function continues to evolve in this age range because it is still in development. As a result, this age group is most vulnerable to risk factors for poor sleep quality and executive dysfunction in response to a crisis.” 

Additionally, Ji recorded socio-demographic information such as age, sex, race, poverty, number of parents, and parental education levels to determine the overall social cumulative risk (SCR) of each participant. Controlled with health behaviors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and exercise frequency, Ji can correlate the differences in social risk factors with the influences of the pandemic.

“Additional social risk factors impact student executive function negatively,” Ji elaborated. “The more social risk factors a participant has, the higher their decline in executive function. These risks intensify the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Though Ji has not proceeded with new research in this area of the COVID-19 pandemic, she emphasized the future opportunities for this topic of research.

“It would be interesting to see the extent of executive function recovery as students continue to acclimate to consistent in-person learning,” Ji explained. “This population has the most exposure to disaster news information and it weighs heavily on them. It’s worthwhile to examine the long-term effect of the pandemic on cognitive function, academic performance, and mental health as well as moderators that may mitigate these associations.”

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