The Covid pandemic has had a lasting effect on the brain health of individuals aged 50 or older.
Researchers have found that the pandemic has resulted in long-term damage to the cognitive abilities of individuals over 50, accelerating cognitive decline regardless of whether they contracted Covid or not.
According to the World Health Organization, nearly 780 million individuals lost their lives or suffered from illness due to the coronavirus. Experts in the healthcare field are currently gaining knowledge about the secondary impacts of this major public health emergency, which is considered to be the most significant in the past 100 years.
Research has shown that older adults experienced a faster decline in cognitive function and working memory during the first year of the pandemic, from March 2020 to February 2021, regardless of whether they contracted the virus. This trend has continued into 2021/22, indicating a lasting effect beyond the initial lockdowns.
The study is the most extensive of its kind to connect the pandemic circumstances and the significant changes in lifestyle caused by lockdowns and other Covid measures to long-term cognitive decline.
The researchers stated that the rate of cognitive decline has worsened due to various factors since the onset of Covid. These include an upsurge in feelings of isolation and depression, a decrease in physical activity, and an increase in alcohol intake, along with the impact of the disease itself. The University of Exeter and King’s College London led a study published in the Lancet Healthy Longevity journal.
Anne Corbett, a professor in dementia research and the lead at Exeter for the Protect study, said: “Our findings suggest that lockdowns and other restrictions we experienced during the pandemic have had a real lasting impact on brain health in people aged 50 or over, even after the lockdowns ended.
This brings up the crucial issue of whether individuals are at an increased vulnerability to cognitive decline, which may result in dementia.
We must prioritize supporting individuals with early cognitive decline, particularly because there are actions they can take to decrease their chances of developing dementia in the future. The speaker recommended those worried about their memory to consult with their general practitioner.
In addition, our research emphasizes the importance of policymakers taking into account the broader health consequences of measures such as lockdowns when preparing for future pandemics.
The scientists examined the results of brain function assessments from 3,142 participants in the Protect study, which began in 2014 with the purpose of understanding the brain activity of individuals over the age of 40 over a span of 25 years.
The individuals evaluated were between the ages of 50 and 90 and residing in the United Kingdom. The assessments examined participants’ immediate memory and their proficiency in completing intricate tasks.
The study then looked at all the data collected over the year from March 2019 to February 2020, and compared it with the results from the pandemic’s first year (March 2020 to February 2021) and second year (March 2021 to February 2022).
During the first year of the pandemic, research revealed that the speed of cognitive decline increased and was more pronounced in individuals who had already displayed mild cognitive decline prior to the emergence of Covid-19.
In a study published in the Lancet Healthy Longevity journal, the authors stated that individuals aged 50 and above in the UK experienced a faster deterioration in their executive function and working memory during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic. This was observed as the UK underwent three lockdowns, spanning a total of six months.
“Significantly, the decline in working memory continued in the second year of the pandemic, even after the easing of social restrictions. It is important to mention that the magnitude of this decline was substantial, as both the entire cohort and individual subgroups showed a decrease of more than 50% in working memory and executive function.”
The researchers warned that the study was based on observation and therefore cannot establish a cause-and-effect relationship. However, they noted that the increase in depression, feelings of loneliness, alcohol consumption, and decrease in physical activity during the Covid pandemic is widely acknowledged.
Therefore, it is imperative to prioritize addressing changes in lifestyle behavior as a public health concern. Based on the observed patterns of associations in this study, we propose that interventions targeting these behaviors may have a positive impact on cognition.
Professor Dag Aarsland of King’s College London, an expert in geriatric psychiatry, stated that this research contributes to our understanding of the long-term effects of Covid-19 on health, specifically for those who are more susceptible such as older adults with mild cognitive decline.
According to Dr. Dorina Cadar, a senior lecturer in cognitive epidemiology and dementia at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, the study shows that the impact of the pandemic on the general population has been devastating.
According to Cadar’s comment in the Lancet Healthy Longevity journal, the results of the Protect study show that individuals who have had Covid-19 may experience changes in their cognitive abilities specific to certain areas, similar to those with mild cognitive impairment. However, the rate of decline may be slightly lower for those with a history of Covid-19.
The research also emphasizes that decreased physical activity, alcohol consumption, feelings of depression, and loneliness were significant factors that impacted the rate of cognitive decline among older individuals during the Covid-19 pandemic.