UK research has uncovered more rapid cognitive decline in the over-50s during the pandemic, highlighting the need for public health measures to protect against dementia risk.
Covid-19 infection was found to be a risk factor but the general more rapid decline in brain health was apparent even if people had not had the virus, researchers found.
Overall, the analysis of tests of short-term memory and complex tasks in 3,000 participants of the online PROTECT study found a 50% change in the rate of cognitive decline in the first year of the pandemic.
The rate was higher in those who already had mild cognitive decline before the pandemic, they reported in The Lancet Healthy Longevity.
It appears to have been exacerbated by a number of factors among the 50-to-90-year-olds taking part, including an increase in loneliness and depression, a decrease in exercise and higher alcohol consumption.
In the second year of the pandemic, reduced exercise continued to affect executive function and associations were sustained between worsening working memory and increased alcohol use. This suggested a sustained impact after the initial 12-month period of lockdowns, the team from Exeter University and King’s College London said.
The sustained drop in cognition highlights the need for public health interventions to mitigate the risk of dementia – particularly in people with mild cognitive impairment where diagnosis of dementia within five years is a substantial risk, they concluded.
Professor Anne Corbett, professor of dementia research and PROTECT study lead at the University of Exeter, 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.’
She added that the findings highlight the need for policy-makers to consider the wider health impacts of restrictions like lockdowns when planning future pandemic responses.
Professor Dar Aarsland, professor of old age psychiatry at KCL, said the research adds to the knowledge of the long-standing health-consequences of Covid-19, particularly for the most vulnerable people such as older people with mild memory problems.
‘We know a great deal of the risks for further decline, and now can add Covid-19 to this list. On the positive note, there is evidence that life-style changes and improved health management can positively influence mental functioning. The current study underlines the importance of careful monitoring of people at risk during major events such as the pandemic.’