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Anxious older people experienced six years of memory decline during pandemic, researchers say

Closeup of a lonely senior man lost in thought , looking away

Older people who were more anxious and depressed during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic experienced a rapid decline in their short-term memory, equivalent to six years of natural ageing, a new study has revealed.

Poor mental health corresponded to low scores on cognitive tasks designed to measure short-term memory and attention, researchers at the University of Exeter and King’s College London said.

The scientists discovered the link after collecting five years’ of data from the Protect study, an online cohort of people aged 40 and over who regularly provide lifestyle information in detailed questionnaires, and take part in cognitive tests.

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The research focused on the impact of the pandemic peak of 2019-2020 in 6,300 people aged 50 and over.

Participants who reported an increase in validated measures of anxiety and depression also scored lower on cognitive tasks designed to measure short term memory and attention.

For memory, the decrease was the equivalent to the decline normally seen over six years of natural ageing. For attention, the difference was the equivalent of five years of ageing.

Dr Helen Brooker, of the University of Exeter, led the research. She said: “It’s likely that key factors were the unprecedented impact of worsening mental health caused by widespread anxiety over the pandemic, and long periods of lockdown. We need to understand this better so we can create effective strategies to support people and preserve both mental health and brain health in future pandemics.”

The study utilised measures of depression and anxiety severity commonly used in clinic. Researchers noted a significant shift in the number of people scoring higher on these scales than previously.

Cognitive tests found the largest dip in memory and attention were seen in those whose scores would indicate moderate or higher levels of anxiety and depression.

Tags : King's College LondonmemoryResearchstudyUniversity of Exeter
Sarah Clarke

The author Sarah Clarke