Preexisting Executive Function Deficits and Change in Health Behaviors During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Bradley M. Appelhans, Alexis S. Thomas, Glenn I. Roisman, Cathryn Booth-LaForce, Maria E. Bleil

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Executive functions (EF) support engagement in goal-directed behaviors, including several health behaviors. Stressful and cognitively demanding events can disrupt EFs and interfere with health behavior, possibly to a greater extent in those with preexisting EF deficits. This study examined the association between preexisting EF deficits and subsequent negative changes in eating patterns, physical activity, sedentariness, and alcohol/substance use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Method: Participants were 374 young adults in a follow-up study of the longitudinal, multisite Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD). Preexisting EF deficits were assessed with the Barkley Deficits in Executive Function Scales-Short Form, and personally impactful negative changes in four health behaviors (physical activity, unhealthy eating, sedentary time, alcohol/substance use) during the COVID-19 pandemic were subsequently assessed with the Epidemic-Pandemic Impacts Inventory. Results: In ordered logistic regression models, higher preexisting total EF deficits were associated with greater negative impactful changes in physical activity and unhealthy eating, independent of sociodemographic variables, obesity, and (as relevant) accelerometer-based physical activity and pre-COVID-19 diet quality. Socioeconomic status moderated the association between total EF deficits and impactful change in alcohol/substance use, with EF deficits linked to greater impactful change in alcohol/substance use only in higher socioeconomic strata. Conclusion: Individuals with preexisting EF deficits appear more vulnerable to the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on several key health behaviors. As the pandemic unfolds, strategies may be needed to identify those with EF deficits (e.g., screening tools) and provide them with tailored support for chronic disease risk reduction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalInternational Journal of Behavioral Medicine
StateAccepted/In press - 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U10HD025447, R01HD091132) and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (R01HL130103) at the National Institutes of Health.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, International Society of Behavioral Medicine.

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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