Study in the United Kingdom reveals cognitive decline and working memory deterioration in older adults, regardless of virus infection.
The pandemic’s enduring impact on the cognitive well-being of individuals aged 50 and above, irrespective of COVID-19 infection, has been unveiled by UK researchers. The global toll from the coronavirus is staggering, with nearly 780 million people affected, revealing the pandemic’s indirect consequences on public health. This extensive study discerned a marked acceleration in the decline of cognitive function and working memory in older adults throughout the first year of the pandemic (from March 2020 to February 2021), even among those uninfected by the virus. This downward trend extended into 2021/22, indicating the lingering effects of the initial lockdowns.
This study, led by the University of Exeter and King’s College London, is the most comprehensive of its kind to establish a connection between pandemic-related conditions and the profound lifestyle changes resulting from lockdowns and other COVID-19 restrictions, and sustained cognitive deterioration. Various factors have exacerbated the speed of cognitive decline since the advent of COVID-19, including increased loneliness and depression, reduced physical activity, higher alcohol consumption, and the direct impact of the disease itself.
Professor Anne Corbett, a dementia researcher and leader of the Protect study at the University of Exeter, emphasized the importance of supporting individuals experiencing early cognitive decline, as this could contribute to dementia risk. She urged those with memory concerns to consult their general practitioners and stressed the necessity for policymakers to consider the broader health consequences when planning responses to future pandemics.
The research drew upon brain function assessments of 3,142 participants in the Protect study, which commenced in 2014 to investigate brain function in individuals over 40 across a 25-year span. The participants, all aged between 50 and 90 in the UK, underwent tests measuring short-term memory and complex task performance.
The results compared data collected from March 2019 to February 2020 with the initial year of the pandemic (March 2020 to February 2021) and the subsequent year (March 2021 to February 2022). The analysis uncovered an acceleration in cognitive decline during the first pandemic year, especially among those already exhibiting signs of mild cognitive decline prior to the outbreak.
The study is observational and cannot establish causation, but the researchers pointed out the well-documented rise in depression, loneliness, alcohol use, and diminished exercise during the pandemic. They suggested addressing these lifestyle changes as a public health priority, as interventions targeting these behaviors could potentially benefit cognition.
Professor Dag Aarsland, an expert in old age psychiatry at King’s College, highlighted the enduring health consequences of COVID-19, particularly for vulnerable populations such as older adults with mild memory issues.
Dr. Dorina Cadar, a senior lecturer in cognitive epidemiology and dementia at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, who was not involved in the study, noted that the pandemic’s effects on the general population have been catastrophic. She underscored the significance of domain-specific cognitive alterations in individuals with a history of COVID-19, emphasizing the role of reduced exercise, alcohol consumption, depression, and loneliness as key risk factors affecting cognitive decline in the older population during the pandemic.
The profound and lasting impact of the pandemic on the cognitive health of individuals aged 50 and above, irrespective of COVID-19 infection, is a matter of grave concern. The findings of this extensive UK study shed light on a critical aspect of the pandemic’s legacy, highlighting the alarming acceleration in cognitive decline and working memory deterioration, particularly during the initial year of the pandemic. Even as society gradually returned to normalcy, the trend persisted, underlining the importance of understanding and addressing the broader consequences of public health crises beyond the immediate threat of the virus.
The study underscores the multifaceted factors contributing to cognitive decline, including increased loneliness, depression, reduced physical activity, higher alcohol consumption, and the direct effects of COVID-19. These findings call for both individual vigilance and public health interventions to mitigate cognitive decline and its potential link to dementia. It’s essential that people who experience memory concerns seek medical advice, and policymakers must consider the far-reaching health implications of lockdowns and restrictions when planning for future pandemics.
As we navigate the ongoing challenges of the pandemic and prepare for an uncertain future, this research serves as a stark reminder of the importance of holistic healthcare and the need for a more comprehensive approach to protecting the well-being of our older populations.