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Did COVID Take Away Your Social Life? It Could Have Taken Your Cognitive Function Too.


The COVID-19 pandemic was a very strange and disruptive time for people all over the world. During the pandemic, we were asked to stay home in order to prevent the spread of the virus. This social-distancing aspect of the pandemic was especially hard to get used to. For some people, social-distancing at home was a nice break from school and work, and maybe (if you’re like me) it was a time spent binging TV shows and movies on Netflix. For many others, however, it was a very isolating and worrisome time. Adults over the age of 60 are at an increased risk for COVID-19 infection, so they were likely to have more strict isolation measures and continued social distancing for a longer period of time than younger adults and children. Many older adults live in long term care facilities and you may think they would still be surrounded by a community of peers and health-care workers during the pandemic, but they were also placed under strict physical distancing measures. The CDC recommended limiting nonessential visitors to these facilities, including family, volunteers, and nonessential health care workers. This means that older adults were more likely to experience feelings of social isolation and loneliness, which has been shown to have a negative impact on cognitive function.

Loneliness and social isolation often co-occur and are more common among older adults. Loneliness refers to the subjective feeling of being alone, the absence of meaningful relationships in one’s life, and an overall dissatisfaction with social networks. Social isolation, on the other hand, refers to a low level and frequency of social interactions. Experiences of loneliness and social isolation in the lives of older adults can lead to detrimental effects on cognitive processing. 


Studies show that loneliness is directly related to declines in cognitive function in older adults. Loneliness and social isolation in later life have also been shown to be significantly associated with dementia. It has been found that there is a significant and negative correlation between feelings of loneliness and general cognitive ability. This means that as levels of loneliness increase, there is a decline in general cognitive ability. More specifically, loneliness has also been shown to lead to declines in many different cognitive processes such as executive function, intellect, processing speed, verbal fluency, immediate recall, semantic memory and visual memory. 

In one study, done at Penn State University, it was found that when adults between the ages of 70 and 90 reported more frequent, pleasant social interactions, they displayed better cognitive performance on that day and the following two. This shows how much of an immediate effect social interaction can have on the cognitive functioning of older adults. Another significant finding from this study was that older adults performed better cognitively when they experienced an increase in a certain type of social contact that they had been lacking. An example of this is if a person wasn’t typically in contact with their family and loved ones, they experienced a boost in cognition on the days that they had more social interactions with them. This study and its findings directly relates to the experiences of the older generation during the COVID-19 pandemic because it shows how crucial positive social interactions in daily life are. It displays how the loneliness and social isolation experienced by older adults during the pandemic could have had a negative impact on cognitive abilities. 

You may be wondering, why does this happen? Why is there a negative relationship between loneliness and cognitive function in older adults? One reason may be that loneliness leads to a decrease in cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is the way in which people resist cognitive damage and tolerate brain alterations associated with cognitive changes. Studies show that cognitive reserve can be enhanced through an increase in social interaction and maintaining an active social network. This means that older adults who were social-distancing and experiencing more feelings of loneliness during the pandemic were not maintaining their cognitive reserve as much, therefore that were at a higher risk for cognitive impairment. 


There are also biological factors that explain the relationship between loneliness and declines in cognitive abilities. One of these factors includes the body’s stress response. Studies show that not only do lonely older adults experience more chronic stressors in their daily life, but also that the pandemic has led to increased stress levels. Some things that contribute to the increase in stress levels during the pandemic include worrying about personal health and the health of loved ones, and watching or reading the news about the global effects of the pandemic. This increase in chronic stress leads to the prolonged activation of the body’s stress response. This can cause cellular damage in the brain that is associated with changes in cognitive function, including dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. The sustained activation of this process is also related to cell death in areas of the brain called the hippocampus and the frontal cortex. These areas are responsible for memory and cognitive function, so this could lead to declines in those abilities. 

No studies have been done yet on the direct effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on older adults’ cognitive functions, but it can be expected that social-distancing had a negative impact. This means that now, it is more important than ever to check up on our elderly loved ones and make sure that they are not feeling lonely or isolated. It could literally help them maintain cognitive function and prevent things such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease!! 


Blazer, D. G.. Yaffe, K., & Liverman, C. T. (2015). Characterizing and Assessing Cognitive Aging. In Cognitive aging: Progress in understanding and opportunities for action (pp. 37-88). essay, The National Academies Press. 

Boss, L., Kang, D., & Branson, S. (2015). Loneliness and cognitive function in the older adult: A systematic review. International Psychogeriatrics, 27(4), 541-553. doi:10.1017/S1041610214002749

Gorenko, J. A., Moran, C., Flynn, M., Dobson, K., & Konnert, C. (2021). Social Isolation and Psychological Distress Among Older Adults Related to COVID-19: A Narrative Review of Remotely-Delivered Interventions and Recommendations. Journal of Applied Gerontology, 40(1), 3–13. https://doi.org/10.1177/0733464820958550

Hwang, T., Rabheru, K., Peisah, C., Reichman, W., & Ikeda, M. (2020). Loneliness and social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. International Psychogeriatrics, 32(10), 1217-1220. doi:10.1017/S1041610220000988

Penn State. (2021, September 9). Socializing may improve older adults’ cognitive function in daily life. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 11, 2022 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/09/210909124349.htm
Rouse, L. (2020, March 25). The other health risk older adults face during COVID-19 pandemic: Social isolation – Vital Record. Vital Record. https://vitalrecord.tamhsc.edu/effects-of-social-isolation-on-older-adults-during-pandemic/

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