Cognitive complications in adults aged 50 or over are more common since the coronavirus pandemic, academics have said.

Researchers have found that older adults are now at higher risk of developing memory problems because of COVID-19, even if they never caught the virus.

Around the world, nearly 780 million people have been infected with the coronavirus, with many cases resulting in death.

The study has discovered that cognitive decline in older adults was the fastest between March 2020 and February 2021 – the first year of the pandemic.

People’s lifestyles completely changed during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the lockdowns and restrictions.

According to the findings, cognitive decline is associated with a number of factors associated with the coronavirus, including a higher alcohol consumption, an increase in loneliness and depression and a fall in exercise, as well as the effects of the disease itself.

Lead author Anne Corbett 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: “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 advised people concerned about their memory to see their GP.

“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.”

During the investigation, the team of researchers assessed the cognitive ability of 3,142 adults who took part in the Protect study by looking at the results of a brain function test they completed before, during and after the pandemic.

They found that people experienced the quickest decline in their memory during the first year of the pandemic.

The authors said: “We found that people aged 50 years and older in the UK had accelerated decline in executive function and working memory during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the UK was subjected to three societal lockdowns for a total period of six months.

“Notably, however, this worsening in working memory persisted in the second year of the pandemic, after the social restrictions had eased.”

They added: “The scale of change is also of note, with all groups – the whole cohort and the individual subgroups – showing more than a 50% greater decline in working memory and executive function.

“As such, there is a clear need to address these changes in lifestyle behaviour as a public health priority, and on the basis of the patterns of associations seen in the current study, we would hypothesise that interventions targeting these behaviours could benefit cognition.”

Professor Dag Aarsland 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.”

Dr Dorina Cadar said: “The new findings from the Protect study indicate domain-specific cognitive changes for individuals with a history of COVID-19 that mirrored similar trajectories for those with mild cognitive impairment but with a slightly lower rate of decline.

“This study also highlights reduced exercise, alcohol use, depression, and loneliness as key risk factors that affected the rates of cognitive decline in the older population during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The study was published in the Lancet Healthy Longevity journal.

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