The COVID-19 outbreak may be indirectly affecting cognition, behavior and function in people with dementia and mild cognitive impairment, a small study has found.

Italian researchers conducted a telephone survey of 139 patients and their caregivers or guardians, asking them to assess perceived changes in clinical conditions that occurred in the prior 30 days. They found:

  • Overall worsening of cognitive symptoms in one-third of participants, particularly in memory and orientation abilities.
  • Worsening behavioral disturbances in more than half (55%) of the participants, mainly in those with dementia versus mild cognitive impairment. This most commonly included agitation/aggression, apathy, and depression.
  • Functional decline in 14% of participants, mainly in personal care and housekeeping.
  • An improvement in cognitive and neuropsychiatric symptoms in some cases.

The results suggest that social isolation and other pandemic-related stressors have aggravated clinical conditions in these adults, reported first author Marco Canevelli Ph.D., from Sapienza University, Rome.

“Their multifaceted health needs, largely neglected in the emergency phase of the pandemic, might have silently changed and become even more challenging,” Canevelli theorized. Heightened levels of caregiver stress and isolation undoubtedly have contributed to the problem, he and his colleagues wrote.

Regular contact by clinicians, including via telehealth when needed, is crucial as the pandemic continues, the authors contend. “This will allow us to monitor the conditions of patients and identify urgent situations to prioritize [in a timely manner].”

Full findings were published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.