A new study conducted by the University of Exeter Medical School, led by Dr. Anne Corbett, has revealed that the lockdowns and societal restrictions imposed during the pandemic had a detrimental impact not only on the mental health of children and teens, but also on elderly individuals.
Using data collected from 3,142 people aged 50 years or over who were taking part in a long-term dementia study in Britain, it was observed that there was a significant worsening of executive function and working memory among the cohort (average age 67.5) in both the first and second year of lockdowns.
Despite restrictions being eased after this period, it appears that much damage had already been done.
The study revealed that reduced exercise and increased drinking were significantly associated with cognitive decline among the entire cohort. Notably, depression was a prominent factor of cognitive decline among those who contracted COVID-19.
Additionally, it was found that loneliness had especially detrimental effects on those with mild cognitive impairment.
“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 6 months,” said the study, published in the Lancet journal Healthy Longevity.
The British Government, funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research, implemented restrictions on the number of times citizens could exercise outside during the pandemic, as well as closing gyms, golf courses, sports courts, swimming pools and indoor sports facilities.
“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 and many effect sizes reaching a clinically significant threshold of greater than 0·3,” said the researchers.
Governments across the West have implemented lockdown measures on and off throughout the pandemic, despite early indications that serious cognitive decline would be a consequence, especially for elderly individuals.
For example, Italian scientists noted in an October 2020 paper in Frontiers in Psychiatry that social disconnection – which is practically guaranteed by the closure of voluntary associations, churches, parishes, gyms and other meeting places for seniors – is a risk factor for dementia and likely to increase the risk of depression and anxiety amongst elderly people.
The researchers further highlighted that these factors mirror population-wide changes in health and lifestyle seen during and after lockdowns, prompting a pertinent question regarding the impact of the pandemic on cognitive health and risk across populations.
“Lockdown could affect disproportionately the mental health of old people, whom relatives contracted COVID-19, people who live alone and whose only social contacts take place outside home, and people who do not have close relatives or friends and rely on the support of voluntary services or social assistance,” said the paper.