COVID-19 Pandemic’s Impact on Brain Health for Individuals 50 and Over

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the decline in brain health for individuals aged 50 and over accelerated significantly, according to data from the PROTECT study in England. Findings from the study, conducted by Anne Corbett, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Exeter, revealed that executive function and working memory worsened for the entire cohort of 3,100 people during the first year of the pandemic. The study also noted the persistence of declining working memory in the second year of the pandemic. These findings raise concerns about the potential long-term cognitive decline and increased dementia risk in this age group.

The PROTECT study highlighted the lasting effects of lockdowns and other restrictions experienced during the pandemic on brain health in individuals aged 50 and over. The decline in cognitive function observed even after the end of lockdowns raises questions about the potential link between cognitive decline and dementia. The study emphasizes the need for policymakers to consider the broader health impacts of restrictions, such as lockdowns, when planning for future pandemic responses.

Although significant progress has been made in understanding the virology, transmission, and pathogenesis of SARS-CoV-2, the long-term consequences of COVID-19 and pandemic restrictions remain largely unknown. Dorina Cadar, PhD, of Brighton and Sussex Medical School, emphasized this uncertainty in an accompanying editorial. The effects of SARS-CoV-2 on the central and peripheral nervous system are increasingly evident, highlighting the need for further research to understand the full extent of the pandemic’s impact on brain health.

The PROTECT study examined neuropsychology test data from 3,142 participants aged 50 and older in the UK. The assessments were conducted at three time points: before the pandemic, during its first year, and during its second year. The study found that both executive function and working memory declined across the entire cohort during the first year of the pandemic. This decline in working memory remained sustained in the second year. The researchers also identified known dementia risk factors, such as increased alcohol use and reduced exercise, as contributing to the deterioration of brain health.

Reduced exercise was significantly associated with cognitive decline in both executive function and working memory. Increased alcohol use was also linked to a decline in working memory. In individuals with a history of COVID-19, cognitive decline was associated with depression, while loneliness was a factor for those with mild cognitive impairment. These findings suggest that the mental health consequences of the pandemic, including isolation, loneliness, and depression, contribute to the decline in brain health.

The sustained decline in cognition highlights the need for public health interventions to mitigate the risk of dementia, particularly for individuals with mild cognitive impairment, who face a substantial risk of dementia within five years. Long-term interventions should be considered to support cognitive health in individuals with a history of COVID-19. These findings emphasize the importance of prioritizing brain health and well-being in response to future pandemics.

The PROTECT study acknowledges several limitations. The cohort used in the study was self-selected and biased towards individuals with higher education levels. The number of participants in the mild cognitive impairment group was relatively small, and subgroup analyses were exploratory. Furthermore, causality cannot be assumed, and other factors may have influenced the results.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact on the brain health of individuals aged 50 and over. The PROTECT study highlighted the rapid decline in executive function and working memory during the pandemic and the persistence of this decline in the second year. The findings emphasize the need for policymakers to consider the broader health implications of pandemic restrictions. Interventions to support cognitive health and mitigate dementia risk should be prioritized, particularly for individuals with mild cognitive impairment and a history of COVID-19. Further research is needed to fully understand the long-term consequences of the pandemic on brain health.

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