New NIHR supported research 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 UK people aged 50 to 90, many of which were recruited through Join Dementia Research.

The results

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 took part in the online PROTECT study, supported by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR). 

The PROTECT study is made up of several arms and conducted entirely online. It is open to new participants aged 40 and over. So far more than 18,000 participants have been recruited, including more than 5,000 (almost a third) through Join Dementia Research.   This arm of the study was led by teams at the University of Exeter and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London. They used Join Dementia Research to recruit participants. Researchers tested participants’ short-term memory and ability to complete complex tasks. 

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.”

Professor Dag Aarsland, Professor of Old Age Psychiatry at King’s College London, 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.”

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.

To find out if you are eligible to join the PROTECT study, as well as other dementia studies, sign in to your Join Dementia Research account or, if you are not already registered, sign up today.

This story was reproduced from an article on the NIHR website.