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29 Nov, 2023 16:31

Covid-19 lockdowns caused cognitive decline – study

Even after the lockdown was over, accelerated worsening of memory functions persisted among older adults, data shows
Covid-19 lockdowns caused cognitive decline – study

Elderly adults experienced a disastrous decline in cognitive functioning during the UK’s Covid-19 quarantine policies, a study published in the Lancet on Tuesday revealed. The accelerated worsening of working memory and other key intellectual metrics persisted even after lockdown ended. 

Analyzing data collected by the government’s PROTECT study of adults aged 50 and above before, during, and after the pandemic lockdowns, researchers affiliated with the University of Exeter, King’s College London, and Imperial College London found “significant worsening of executive function and working memory” across all groups studied.

Reduced exercise and increased alcohol use were associated with worsening of memory and executive functioning during lockdown even among individuals who had no previous history of cognitive impairment, while depression and loneliness were strongly linked to worsening of existing cognitive issues. 

Declines in working memory persisted even after lockdowns ended and overall cognitive decline declined at twice the rate it had prior to lockdowns, as measured by performance on the cognitive tasks participants completed as part of the PROTECT study.

This marked decline in overall cognition was observed even in elderly individuals who had shown no signs of impairment prior to the lockdowns. Nor was it limited to individuals who had contracted Covid-19, though several studies have established a link between infection and persistent cognitive deficits, with up to 78% of those infected reporting lasting mental difficulties. 

The researchers hypothesized reduced exercise and increased alcohol consumption might be responsible for the cognitive decline reported, but cautioned against confusing correlation with causation and recommended further study. “Ongoing concerns about the pandemic and a shift to more virtual communication forms, leading to less time spent out of the house and a less active lifestyle” were suggested as a hypothesis to explain the lingering debilitation post-lockdown.

The study did not distinguish between those who had received the Covid-19 vaccine and the unvaccinated. A broad spectrum of neurological side effects including cognitive impairment have been associated with the shot, though to date no comprehensive studies have been performed on the subject. 

Given the established role of loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for worsening cognitive impairment in elderly adults, the predictably detrimental effect of lockdowns on this population was the source of much controversy during the pandemic.

Elderly advocates as early as July 2020 warned that patients with mild cognitive decline were rapidly spiraling into full-blown dementia, losing the ability to care for themselves and even speak due to suspensions in healthcare services and social visits. 

The UK locked its population down three times during the pandemic, exercising unprecedented societal controls. That policy is currently under investigation in the government’s Covid-19 Inquiry.