Study finds COVID-19 affected brain function among over-50s in UK

People in the poorest areas of Australia are dying 2.5 times more often from the disease than those in the richest areas.

People in the poorest areas of Australia are dying 2.5 times more often from the disease than those in the richest areas. Photo: AP

Lockdowns and other restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic have had a “real lasting impact” on the brain health of people in the UK over the age of 50, researchers say.

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.

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 3142 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.

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.

Dag Aarsland, a professor of old age psychiatry at King’s IoPPN, said: “This study adds to the knowledge of the long-standing 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.


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