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Fear and worry over COVID can lead to impaired cognitive function, study finds

Researchers say they took advantage of the pandemic to ‘study the effects of a real-world stressor in a large sample’

In this May 19, 2021, photo, a licensed practical nurse draws a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at a mass vaccination clinic at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
In this May 19, 2021, photo, a licensed practical nurse draws a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at a mass vaccination clinic at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

A new study has found that worries and anxiety over the COVID-19 pandemic can impair basic cognitive functions, leading to poorer decision making, delays in mental processing speed, and alteration of the perception of risk.

A team at McGill University and The Neuro – Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital surveyed 1,517 Americans to assess the lingering impacts of the pandemic on a combination of cognitive tasks, targeting vital brain functions such as processing and maintaining information.

“The impairments associated with worry observed here suggest that under periods of high stress, like a global pandemic, our ability to think, plan, and evaluate risks is altered,” said Kevin da Silva Castanheira, the lead author of the study and a graduate student in McGill’s Department of Psychology.

The survey asked subjects to rate their concerns over COVID-19, and then challenged them with various cognitive tests and compared the results to pre-pandemic samples. The tests measured things like reaction to stimuli, the ability to process and interpret information, and risk assessment.

Through the series of tests, the researchers discovered that people who felt higher rates of fear or worry related to the pandemic did not perform as highly on simple cognitive tasks, and were more likely to experience “reduced information processing speed, ability to retain information needed to perform tasks, and heightened sensitivity to the odds they were given when taking risks.”

“The impact of stress and of worry on cognitive function are well known, but are typically studied in the laboratory setting,” said Dr. Madeleine Sharp, a neurologist at The Neuro and one of the study’s authors. “Here, we’re able to extend these findings by studying the effects of a real-world stressor in a large sample.”

Travelers wearing masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic ride the Jerusalem Light Rail as it passes by the Mahane Yehuda market station in Jerusalem on December 31, 2021. (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

This is consistent with findings by Israeli researchers. A previous study conducted by a group of Israeli universities found that children experienced more stress as a result of the pandemic, exhibited unhealthy social and dietary habits, and were even prone to higher rates of violence.

Israel is in the midst of a fifth wave of the coronavirus pandemic spurred by the Omicron variant. A leading health expert advising the government predicted Sunday morning that one out of every three or four Israelis will be infected with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus over the next three weeks.

Israel is taking steps in order to curb the spread, announcing the approval of a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine for people over the age of 60 and medical workers, restricting air travel and distributing a first batch of new coronavirus treatment pills to at-risk patients.

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