Brain health in over-50s deteriorated more rapidly during the pandemic

Published: 03 November 2023

Research supported by the NIHR’s Biomedical Research Centre in Exeter shows that brain health in people over 50 deteriorated more rapidly during the pandemic. This was true regardless of whether they had COVID-19.

Researchers analysed brain function tests completed by more than 3,000 people based in the UK. Respondents were aged between 50 and 90. The results showed that cognitive decline quickened significantly in the first year of the pandemic. There was a 50% change to the rate of decline across the study group during this time. This figure was higher in those who already had mild cognitive decline before the pandemic. 

This trend continued into the second year of the pandemic. This suggests there was an impact beyond the initial 12-month period of lockdowns. The research has been published in The Lancet Healthy Longevity.

What caused the decline?

The cognitive decline seems to have been exacerbated by a number of factors during the pandemic, including:

  • an increase in loneliness 
  • an increase in depression
  • a decrease in exercise
  • higher alcohol consumption 

Physical activity and treating existing depression can help reduce dementia risk. Getting back into the community and reconnecting with people, can also help maintain brain health.

The PROTECT study 

The 3,000 participants had taken part in the online PROTECT study. It was led by teams at the University of Exeter and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London. The study tested participants’ short-term memory and ability to complete complex tasks. 

The PROTECT study is part of the NIHR Exeter Biomedical Research Centre’s world-leading Neurodegeneration research theme. The study is a partnership with King’s College London, the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, and the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration South West Peninsula. The Exeter BRC has five core research themes aimed at translating scientific discoveries swiftly into benefits to patients.

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. So if you are concerned about your memory the best thing to do is to make an appointment with your GP and get an assessment.

“Our findings also highlight the need for policy-makers to consider the wider health impacts of restrictions like lockdowns when planning for a future pandemic response.”

Professor Dag Aarsland, 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 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.”

The PROTECT study is conducted entirely online and is open to new participants aged 40 and over. To find out more, visit the study website. 

NIHR has also awarded £1.9 million in funding to develop a new app to monitor brain health in older people. The app is being developed as part of the PROTECT study.

The aim of this study is to help reach people with early cognitive impairment who currently do not get seen by a GP or memory clinic. This is to ensure that those who are in most need are seen as a priority.

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