Pandemic had real lasting impact on cognitive function in over-50s, study finds

Lockdowns and other restrictions brought in during the pandemic have had a “real lasting impact” on the brain health of people over the age of 50, researchers have suggested.

A study found cognitive function and working memory in older people declined more rapidly during the pandemic, regardless of whether or not they were infected with Covid-19.

Researchers said this could be down to factors exacerbated by the pandemic, such as not exercising enough and drinking too much alcohol, as well as loneliness and depression.

A team comprising researchers from the University of Exeter and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London analysed brain function tests from 3,142 people who took part in the Protect Study, which initially launched in 2014 to gain an insight into the brain function of people over 40 over a 25-year period.

The cohort assessed by researchers was aged between 50 and 90 and based in the UK.

The team looked at data from March 2019 and February 2020, comparing it with data collected during the pandemic’s first (March 2020 to February 2021) and second (March 2021 to February 2022) years.

Analysis showed the rate of cognitive decline quickened in the first year of the pandemic, and was higher among those who had already shown signs of mild cognitive decline before the outbreak of Covid-19.

The pattern continued into the second year of the pandemic, which researchers said suggests an impact beyond the initial national lockdowns in 2020 and 2021.

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.”

She added that it is “now more important than ever” to make sure people showing signs of early cognitive decline are supported.

“If you are concerned about your memory the best thing to do is to make an appointment with your GP and get an assessment,” Prof Corbett said.

“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.”

Dag Aarsland, a professor of old age psychiatry at King’s IoPPN, said: “This study adds to the knowledge of the longstanding health consequences of Covid-19, in particular for 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 lifestyle 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.”

The findings have been published in medical journal The Lancet Healthy Longevity.

Dr Susan Mitchell, head of policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said the “important” study “helps to demonstrate how the profound lifestyle shifts triggered by the lockdown restrictions might have influenced the nation’s brain health”.

“In doing so, it underlines the fact that there are steps we can all take to protect the health of our brain, she added.

“Our own analysis has shown that just 2% of people say they’re doing all they can to optimise their brain health.

“While our genetics play an important role in the health of our brains as we age, we know that a range of health and lifestyle factors can impact our brain health.

“Further research is needed so we can develop our understanding of these relationships and who may be at greatest risk of developing dementia.”

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, arrives to give his statement to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry in London (James Manning/PA)

It comes as public hearings continue for the second module of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, which is exploring UK decision-making and political governance during the pandemic.

On Tuesday, one of Boris Johnson’s closest aides at the time, Dominic Cummings, told the probe an “overall dysfunctional system” was in place during the crisis.

He revealed there was no shielding plan early in the pandemic and vulnerable groups were “appallingly neglected” as a “fatalistic” approach took hold.

The inquiry was also shown diary entries from Sir Patrick Vallance showing that Mr Johnson suggested he believed the pandemic was “nature’s way of dealing with old people” as he resisted lockdowns.