People aged 50 and over sustained potentially lasting harm to their brain power during the pandemic, according to a new study.
Researchers found a decline in the brain health of that age group during the Covid crisis – whether or not they caught the virus. They noted faster cognitive decline and affected memory in older adults during the first year of the pandemic.
And this was not focused solely on the initial lockdown as that trend – between March 2020 and February 2021 – continued into 2021-22. The researchers said the acceleration in cognitive decline was exacerbated by an increase in loneliness and depression; a drop in exercise; higher alcohol consumption and the effects of the disease itself.
This’Protect’ study, led by the University of Exeter and King’s College London, was published in the Lancet Healthy Longevity journal. Anne Corbett, a university professor in dementia research, 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 raises the important question of whether people are at a potentially higher risk of cognitive decline, which can lead to dementia. It is now more important than ever to make sure we are supporting people with early cognitive decline, especially because there are things they can do to reduce their risk of dementia later on.”
Anyone concerned about memory is advised to see their GP. She added: “Our findings also highlight the need for policymakers to consider the wider health impacts of restrictions like lockdowns when planning for a future pandemic response.”
As The Guardian reports, the researchers analysed brain function tests from 3,142 people in the UK – aged between 50 and 90 – who took part in the Protect study, which began in 2014 in a bid to gain an insight into the brain function of over-40s across a 25-year period.
They were tested on short-term memory and ability to complete complex tasks. The study compared data collected between March 2019 and February 2020 with that of the pandemic’s first 12 months – when there were three lockdowns – and its second year.
Results showed the rate of cognitive decline sped up in the first pandemic year and was higher among those who had already shown signs of mild cognitive decline before Covid hit.
Writing in the Lancet Healthy Longevity journal, the researchers said the worsening in working memory persisted into the second year of the pandemic, after restrictions had eased and added: “The scale of change is also of note, with all groups … showing more than a 50% greater decline in working memory and executive function.”
They pointed out the study was observational so could not prove cause and effect but said the rise in depression, loneliness and alcohol use and the fall in exercise during Covid was well known. They added: “There is a clear need to address these changes in lifestyle behaviour as a public health priority, and on the basis of the patterns of associations seen in the current study, we would hypothesise that interventions targeting these behaviours could benefit cognition.”
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