COVID smell loss can have profound effects on your life, from weight change to intimacy barriers

Flotsam/Shuttestock
AUTHOR: Vincent Deary, Northumbria University, Newcastle and Duika Burges Watson, Newcastle University

It took a while to be officially recognised, but smell loss eventually became known to be one of the defining features of COVID-19. It’s now widely acknowledged that COVID-19 has a unique effect on smell receptors, and about 10% of those who lose their smell are still reporting problems with smell and taste six months later.

The effects of this can be profound. So we wanted to document what it was like to live with long-term smell and taste problems, and we did this by working with the smell-loss charity AbScent, which has an online support group for people with post-COVID smell problems.

By speaking to people in this group, we were able to build a picture of the wider impacts of disrupted smell following COVID-19. At the time of conducting our research, over 9,000 people had joined the group. Every day we were seeing new accounts of the devastating effect of sensory change.

We started posting questions to get a better sense of what was going on, and the response was overwhelming. People really wanted their experiences to be heard. With the consent of participants, we began to analyse their responses. We ran every theme we detected past the group and got them to comment on our research paper before we finalised it. We wanted to be sure we were telling their stories correctly. Here’s what we found out.

The end of food satisfaction

It’s been hard for people even close to me to understand the severity of the loss and how it’s affected my life.

Before we go further, let’s define a few key terms. Anosmia is total loss of smell. Parosmia is where normal smells are distorted, usually unpleasantly. Taste is what is picked up by the receptors on the tongue. Flavour is the total sensory experience of food, to which smell is the major contributor, but the other senses are also involved. This means that even if your taste (tongue) is fine, loss of smell will seriously affect flavour.

The first thing that struck us was how unpredictable and disorientating the sensory loss experience could be. For some, the effects were absolute:

It was like a light switch: from 100% to 0% in a couple of hours… No distorted smells, no whiffs, nothing. It’s like my nose switched off.

For others, things were more fluid. Anosmia could mutate into parosmia. Food that was fine one day could become disgusting the next. This “chaos narrative” – as sociologists call it – meant that smell loss was very difficult to live with, let alone manage. A condition over which there was no control.

A woman disgusted at the smell of a cup of coffee
What was once familiar and enjoyable could suddenly become strange and unpleasant. Farknot Architect/Shutterstock

The effect on appetite was also unpredictable. As might be expected, people had trouble eating – particularly when normal smells were distorted. Some were really struggling, reporting malnutrition and severe weight loss.

Less obviously, some people reported weight gain. These were usually people with anosmia, who were “chasing flavour” after losing their sense of smell. You can understand this if you realise the distinction between wanting and liking in what psychologists call the pleasure cycle.

Wanting is where you are chasing the thing you are going to consume. Liking is when you have got it and you are savouring it. In anosmia, that savouring part is no longer there, but this doesn’t stop the wanting:

Food satisfaction is lacking and I see myself eating more to try to get that satisfied feeling… I am gaining weight due to a constant urge to satisfy what can never be satisfied.

Intimacy is a scent

But it wasn’t all about food. Until you lose it, you don’t realise how essential eating is to everyday joys, especially social pleasures:

I am grieving for my lost senses. No more wine and cheese tasting nights or gin cocktails with my “girls”.

Even more heartbreaking was the effect of sensory changes on intimate relationships. There were a lot of posts where people described the loneliness of no longer being able to smell their partner or their children. Again, until it is gone, you don’t realise how important smell is to intimacy and connection. Even worse was the effect of parosmia:

His natural odour used to make me want him; now it makes me vomit.

How do you tell your lover that?

A man smelling his girlfriend's hair
Smell is an important but underappreciated part of what makes a person seem who they are. puhhha/Shutterstock

Some people’s relationships with themselves and the world had also changed. Some with no sense of smell reported feeling detached from themselves and the world. With parosmia, it could be more disturbing yet, with disgusting smells being triggered by everyday scents, making the world feel like a dangerous and confusing place.

For some these sensory changes were, fortunately, temporary. However, months down the line, many are stuck with profound sensory changes, with all the distress that brings. While there is evidence that smell training helps sensory recovery in other conditions, we are still at the early stages of understanding and developing treatments for what amounts to a pandemic of altered sensing.

About the Authors

Vincent Deary, is a Professor of Applied Health Psychology, within the Health and Wellbeing Research Group in the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University. He is also a member of the Altered Eating Network: https://twitter.com/AlteredEating

Duika Burges Watson, is a Lecturer in Global Health, Newcastle University

Read more?

Head over to the Health and Wellbeing Research section of the blog

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Mark Moss: “There’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”

Dr. Mark Moss

Dr. Mark Moss, Head of the Psychology Department at Northumbria University, tells us about his research into rosemary’s benefits for memory. We also get to learn about how the nose is connected to the brain and why smells are so powerful. “Because we’re always breathing, wherever we go, whatever we’re doing, there’s always an opportunity to see what effects aroma will have on that particular behavior at any given time.”

For more information on Northumbria Psychology Department our blog is northumbriapsy.com.

Or follow us on Twitter @northumbriapsy

You can also follow me on Twitter to stay updated on our episodes @BrownGenavee.

Music by Podington Bear: Holding Steady

Show notes:

Research by Mark Moss:

https://www.northumbria.ac.uk/about-us/our-staff/m/mark-moss/

Research on breathing pure oxygen: https://researchportal.northumbria.ac.uk/en/publications/oxygen-administration-and-acute-human-cognitive-enhancement-highe

Research on rosemary and sage aromas: https://researchportal.northumbria.ac.uk/en/publications/half-way-to-scarborough-fair-the-cognitive-and-mood-effects-of-ro

Transcript can be viewed here.

Spotlight on: Professor Nick Neave

Nick Neave is a Professor in psychology and the lead of our Hoarding Research Group. Hes also the Faculty Director of Ethics and teaches a range of modules in the psychology, including our very popular Parapsychology module!

How long have you worked at Northumbria?

I have been at Northumbria for 25 years.

What got you interested in psychology?

I became interested at college by taking it as an A/O level, I chose this subject as I did not know what it was and it sounded interesting.

What was your PhD/Masters about?

My PhD was on the Neuroanatomical basis of spatial working memory.

What are your main research areas?

My main research areas are not hoarding and collecting behaviours (especially digital hoarding), conspiracy theory belief, and the home advantage in football.

What advice do you have for students?

Do not be obsessed by career pathways, take courses you are actually interested in

What would you have liked to do if you had not become a psychologist?

I started out as a primary school teacher and so would most likely still be doing that!

Lockdown, quarantine and self-isolation: how different COVID restrictions affect our mental health

Zamuruew/Shutterstock
AUTHOR: Tom Heffernan, Northumbria University, Department of Psychology

In the year since the city of Wuhan, China, went into the world’s first coronavirus lockdown, we have all had to live under some form of pandemic-related restriction.

Some countries have opted for strict national lockdowns, like the one currently in place in the UK, while other countries such as Taiwan have opted for border closures and mandatory quarantine for overseas arrivals. Such different approaches to restricting movement have different effects on our well-being.

It is now well documented that the pandemic has generally contributed to a number of mental health problems including stress, anxiety and depression. But what role do restrictions on movement play in this? And how do they differ?

Different pandemic restrictions

Researchers around the world are now focusing on what the specific impact of lockdown, quarantine and isolation might have upon our mental health. Lockdown, in the context of COVID-19, refers to implementation of strict community restrictions on travel and social interaction as well as denying access to public spaces.

Quarantine is a restriction of movement of those people who have been exposed to a contagious disease to observe whether they will become ill. In Australia, for example, all overseas arrivals must spend 14 days in hotel quarantine before being allowed into the community.

Self-isolation, meanwhile, is the separation of those who have become sick as a result of a contagious disease in order to separate them from others who are not sick.

Quarantine

Looking to past pandemics can help us understand this one. A recent academic review examined studies of people who had been quarantined as a result of other disease outbreaks such as Ebola, SARS and swine flu. The review concluded that quarantine can lead to a number of harmful psychological effects.

One outcome is the fear and anxiety that can increase due to worries about catching or transmitting the virus, and concerns about the health, social and economic effects of the pandemic. Individuals can also experience anger at the changing policies and protocols that impinge upon their everyday life and feelings of control.

And the long-term effects of quarantine can lead to some people subsequently developing a post-traumatic stress reaction, which can manifest in feelings of exhaustion, low mood and irritability.

Lockdown vs self-isolation

For lockdown and self-isolation measures, we have data from the COVID-19 pandemic itself.

Research from Italy, which was hit hard early in the pandemic and had an extensive lockdown, has found that more than one-third of the general public experienced significant psychological distress during the second month of coronavirus restrictions.

In a forthcoming study, my colleagues and I looked at what impact lockdown and had on psychological well-being and happiness compared to self-isolation. From March to July 2020, we assessed a sample of UK adults who were under one of three types of restrictions: self-isolation, full lockdown or partial lockdown (full lockdown is remaining at home and not going to work, whereas partial lockdown allows you to go to work).

After controlling for variations in age and sex, we found that those in self-isolation reported significantly lower levels of psychological well-being and happiness when compared to those in lockdown or those in partial lockdown, with no difference between the last two groups.

These findings suggest that self-isolation impairs psychological well-being and happiness to a greater degree than lockdown.

Caging the social animal

COVID-19 restrictions heighten the fears people have about health and safety as well as financial and social consequences. Self-isolation may add to this due to a prolonged separation from friends and family – those who provide a close support network. This is because during self-isolation you should avoid contact with everyone, even those in your household.

The finding of no difference between those in full lockdown and partial lockdown is equally interesting. This suggests that people can maintain a sense of satisfaction, optimism, engagement and a positive mood state despite the restrictions placed upon them, testifying to the resilience of humans under difficult conditions.

Humans are essentially social animals. Our large brains have developed to embrace social contact and develop skills that have helped us survive and prosper. These skills include language, problem-solving and planning, as well as empathy and care for others. We are hard-wired for social contact and communication.

Social isolation breaks many of these forms of communication and interactions, which are key to forming strong social bonds. It should therefore come as no surprise to find that prolonged periods of isolation can lead to a range of psychological problems, just as it does in the abnormal behaviour and communication found in a caged animal.

One year on, we are still yet to understand the full psychological fallout of COVID-19. But working out how different restrictions affect us our inner social animal is an important place to start as we navigate our way out of this pandemic and prepare for the next one.

Tom Heffernan is a senior lecturer in the psychology department, and a member of the Cognition and Neuroscience research group. He also teaches about the psychology of crime.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Northumbria PhD Students’ Prize Winning Research

One of our current PhD students, Richard Brown, has been awarded runner up in the Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group awards for his research conducted in his time on our MSc Psychology programme. Richard is now a PhD student, working with Dr Gillian Pepper, and Dr Liz Sillence and also works as a research assistant with Liz and Professor Lynne Coventry as part of the INTUIT project. He completed his Psychology master’s conversion course at Northumbria in 2020 after previously working in law and education.

Richard’s master’s research

Richard’s master’s thesis investigated perceptions of risk and health and information seeking behaviours during the COVID-19 pandemic, surveying a nationally representative sample of 500 UK adults. From this study, he was able to produce two publications alongside Dr Gillian Pepper and Professor Lynne Coventry.

The first paper investigated the relationship between perceptions of risk and health behaviours during lockdown. It was found that greater perceived threat to life from COVID-19 predicted increased compliance with infection control measures. It was also suggested that the pandemic may have made people feel less control over what is likely to kill them. Feeling less control over what may kill you was also associated with a worsening of health behaviours for diet, physical activity and smoking. This suggests that health messages that highlight threat to life may increase adherence to infection control, but may also lead to a reduction in health-promoting behaviours.

The second paper looked at demographic and occupational inequalities in experiences and perceptions of COVID-19. Men reported lower levels of perceived threat to life from the virus than women and, among workers, lower occupational class was associated with greater levels of perceived risk of infection and perceived threat to life. Most notably, key workers during the pandemic who reported feeling that they are insufficiently protected by their PPE experienced increased levels of perceived threat, which may lead to negative health behaviours. This highlights the need for employers to ensure that key workers feel they are adequately protected from COVID-19.

What’s next?

Richard is now looking to build on this research during his doctoral studies. He has submitted a position paper for publication that outlines the theoretical and empirical case for the expanded study of the Uncontrollable Mortality Risk Hypothesis, developed by his supervisor Dr Gillian Pepper and Professor Daniel Nettle at Newcastle University. He has also finished collecting data for the qualitative study of feelings of control over different causes of death, which he hopes will expand into further quantitative research later in the year. Finally, he is planning to investigate health misinformation on Facebook to determine some of the key message characteristics that lead to enhanced sharing online.

Advice for students wanting to publish during their studies

Richard’s advice to students looking to publish their work is to cast the net wide when looking for opportunities and to be creative in disseminating their ideas. In addition to the Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group, various organisations advertise student essay competitions which offer the opportunity to have your work published in their affiliated journals (for example the Royal Society for Public Health). There are also opportunities to pitch your ideas to The Conversation and other information outlets. For example, Richard published an article on Open Science in the Psychologist earlier this year. Finally, inspired by Dr Santosh Vijaykumar’s work on The Batsapp Project and Dr Daniel Jolley’s videos on conspiracy theories, Richard has created an explainer video to summarise his first study in a fun and accessible way. This provides a fresh and creative approach for getting your ideas noticed.

You can watch his video below!

To reduce stress and anxiety, write your happy thoughts down

A. and I. Kruk/Shutterstock.com
AUTHOR: Dr Michael Smith, Department of Psychology, Northumbria University

Writing about positive emotions may help to reduce stress and anxiety, according to our new study, published in the British Journal of Health Psychology.

Earlier research has also found that writing about negative emotions – getting things “off your chest” – can improve your mental health. And it seems to benefit physical health, too.

Stress affects your physical health, so it is thought that improvements in mental well-being might stop people becoming physically unwell. Research has shown that writing about negative emotions can lead to fewer visits to the doctor, fewer self-reported symptoms of ill health, and less time off work due to ill health.

Not many studies have investigated writing about positive emotions, but if writing about negative emotions helps people deal with their negative thoughts and feelings, then it’s possible that focusing on positive emotions might have a positive effect on people’s mental health.

Earlier research has shown that writing about positive experiences for 20 minutes a day, for three consecutive days, improved people’s mood and led to fewer visits to the doctor. Even writing for as little as two minutes a day about a positive experience has been shown to reduce the number of health complaints that people report.

While earlier studies showed that writing about positive experiences can improve your mood, we didn’t know what effect it might have on stress and anxiety.

Twenty minutes a day

For our study, we investigated whether writing about a positive experience – which could include anything from being moved by a good book, painting or piece of music, to falling in love – could reduce stress, anxiety and common health complaints, such as a headache, back pain or coughs and colds. We also wanted to know if it would be helpful for all people, regardless of their level of distress.

Writing about falling in love could be good for your mental health.
Look Studio/Shutterstock.com

We recruited 71 healthy participants, aged 19 to 77, and randomly allocated them to one of two groups. We asked one group (37 participants) to write about the most wonderful experiences of their life for 20 minutes a day, for three consecutive days, and we asked the other group (34 participants) to write about a neutral topic, such as their plans for the rest of the day, over the same time frame.

We measured levels of anxiety, as reported by the participants, immediately before and after they completed their writing task. We found a significantly greater decrease in anxiety for those people who wrote about positive experiences, compared with those who wrote about neutral topics.

The participants also reported their levels of stress, anxiety and physical health complaints four weeks after they completed the writing tasks. Stress and anxiety decreased to a significantly greater extent for those who wrote about positive experiences after four weeks, compared with the levels reported before they completed the writing tasks. However, writing didn’t improve participants’ physical health problems.

We also found that writing about happy moments was effective, regardless of the levels of distress that people reported at the start of the study.

Because we excluded people with a diagnosed psychological condition, we can’t be sure that this technique would work in a clinical setting. It’s also important to note that in order for them to engage with the task, it wasn’t possible to blind participants to the treatment. Another limitation of our study was that we relied on self-report questionnaires, rather than using objective measures of mental and physical health.

Of course, emotional writing may not be for everyone. Personality traits, problems expressing emotions or a disinterest in writing might mean that for some people there are better ways to tackle negative emotions.

An advantage of writing about positive emotions to tackle stress and anxiety is its simplicity. Unlike many other strategies for improving psychological well-being, this task needs no training or time spent with a therapist. People can do it at a time and place that is convenient for them – and it’s free.The Conversation

Dr Michael Smith is an Associate Professor in the Psychology Department, a member of our Health and Wellbeing Research Group, and our Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Graduate Bio: Joan Wong

We interviewed Joan Wong, one of our MSc Occupational and Organisational Psychology graduates about her career. Joan is now a Senior HR director in the financial technology industry

Author: Joan Wong

Which course(s) did you do at Northumbria and what have you done since graduating?

I was inspired to study Psychology after reading several books about human minds at the age of 15. Having torn between the Counselling Psychology and Organisational Psychology, I finally decided to pursue a MSc degree in the latter with the aim of contributing something to all human beings who spend nearly half their lifetime in the workforce for a living.

I graduated in 2017, and I was lucky to be given the opportunity to be a recruiter one month after I came back to Malaysia. It was a start-up like environment as one of the prestigious firms (also my dream company) set up a shared services centre in my home country back in 2016. Lots of professional growth opportunities as I was able to get involved in campus recruitment, employer branding, and people advisory functions in my first job.

What is your current job title and what does your job involve?

I am currently working as Senior HR Executive in the financial technology industry; another wonderful company where growth opportunities abound. My day-to-day is challenging yet inspiring in different ways, i.e. writing HR policies/process, handling employee enquiries from different regional offices, and my favourite – to plan and execute talent development related projects.

What inspired you to follow your career path?

My dream of being able to help employees achieve a balance between productivity and happiness at the organisation has allowed me to soldier on for the past few years. I realised I could achieve this dream through talent development and talent management functions where my passion lies.

What advice would you give to current students wanting to follow a similar path?

I volunteered to have mock interviews with students from other departments (me acting as a recruiter), when I involved in a value-based recruitment consultancy project with an external NGO, and when I presented my thesis at a conference. They are all about challenging oneself to understand the meaning of limitless, and to understand that being limitless is indeed possible.

Other than the academic knowledge taught by my favourite lectures/professors (they are still the best in my heart to this day), one of the greatest takeaways from this MSc programme is not to be afraid of trying new things in an unfamiliar environment. Say yes to all the opportunities presented to you whilst you are still a student; say yes to all the opportunities to you whilst you start working; say yes to all the wonderful things during your lifetime because they are going to bring you to a place where you never imagine such place even exists on this planet.

Go volunteering and do not be afraid to take on additional projects/responsibilities at the workplace. They might seem daunting, and the journey is going to be arduous. But trust me, the outcome is going to be rewarding to the extent that you are not going to trade that with any other things.

What was your favourite thing about studying at Northumbria?

If I were given a change again, I will choose to re-live the same path. No regrets! Especially the library at Northumbria. It was there for me during so many sleepless nights (the jet lag) at the beginning, and its marvellous reservoir of books. It never failed me when I was looking for different books to read during weekends and semester holidays. Being able to borrow those books from other libraries was an experience that was so special that I could not even replicate this experience at any other places.

Why some people believe they can hear the dead

Tom Tom/Shutterstock
AUTHORS: Adam J. Powell, Durham University and Peter Moseley, Northumbria University, Newcastle

It’s a blustery October night in 1841, and though Liverpool is sleeping, Mrs Bates is very much awake. Before her, shining brightly at the foot of her bed, is an “open vision” of her friend Elizabeth Morgan, “standing in full view before her, clothed in robes beautiful and white”. The shimmering vision lingers for “some considerable length of time” before fading away. When dawn arrives, and after a fitful sleep, Mrs Bates is informed by a messenger that Elizabeth Morgan is dead.

People have reported spooky, spiritual and extraordinary experiences for centuries. Like Mrs Bates, those who claim to have communed with the dead have found themselves ridiculed as well as revered. Our recent research has revealed that mediums, mystics and psychics are more prone to certain auditory phenomena than the general population – which may play a role in their reports of communicating with the dead.



The experience of hearing voices is far more common than you might expect. Some studies have estimated that as many as 50% of people hear the voice of their deceased loved one during periods of grieving. Elsewhere, research from our team has shown that some Christians occasionally hear God as a literal auditory voice with which they can commune.

Claiming to be able to speak with the dead is often found to coexist with the beliefs of what’s called “spiritualism” – a quasi-religious movement based on the idea that individuals continue to exist after the death of their physical bodies. Their “spirits” may appear to or communicate with living persons, often called “mediums”.

Spiritualism can be traced back to the Fox sisters, Maggie and Kate, who in 1848 claimed to hear a spirit knocking on the walls of their home in New York. Mediums that “hear” the spirits, as the Fox sisters did, are said to be “clairaudient” while those who can “see” the spirits are considered “clairvoyant”.

From Arthur Conan Doyle to the Kardashians, the possibility of spiritual mediumship has endured and captivated many. In fact, the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU), one of several contemporary spiritualist organisations in Britain, boasts a membership of at least 11,000.

What’s more, interest in channelling spirits, psychic predictions, and life after death seems to have been growing in both the UK and the US in recent years. But what’s actually going on when people hear voices they take to be the spirits of the dead?

‘I hear dead people’

Our new study of the clairaudient experiences of contemporary mediums is beginning to clarify why some people report hearing spiritual voices. We found that people who were more likely to experience “absorption” – a tendency to get lost in mental imagery or altered states of consciousness – were also more likely to experience clairaudience.

This finding suggests these people actually experience unusual sounds they believe to be clairaudient. But it doesn’t explain why they identify these voices with the spirits of the dead, which is the core tenet of spiritualism.

Two eccentrically-dressed women in a black and white photo, one reading the palm of the other
Mediums and mystics are enduring figures throughout history. Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Significantly, nearly 75% of those we surveyed said they didn’t know about spiritualism or its set of beliefs prior to their earliest clairaudient experiences. This suggests that, for many, the sensation of speaking with spirits preceded knowledge of clairaudience as a phenomenon.

Some scholars argue that mediums later tag their voice-hearing to spiritualism as a way of explaining their auditory hallucinations. This “attributional theory” may explain why there are a large number of spiritualist mediums.

Grave concerns

Historical research suggests that emotional desires play a key role in conjuring such phenomena. In the past, this research tells us, when an individual felt melancholic and desperate for a manifestation of the supernatural, they would often record a spiritual experience shortly thereafter.

Guidance from a faith leader also seems important for conjuring the metaphysical. The work of Stanford University anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, for instance, highlights how one’s desire must be met with direction, noting the importance of training and instruction for the faithful who hope to have vivid encounters with the divine through prayer.

Colourful Christian chruch service with man holding arms out in prayer
The religious regularly report supernatural experiences, including hearing the voice of God. Paul shuang/Shutterstock

However, further research has shown that spiritual practice does not necessarily make perfect – at least not without a pre-existing tendency towards immersive mental activities. For mediums, this means that “yearning and learning” is not enough. Clairaudience may require a unique proclivity for voice-hearing.

Healthy hearing

Researchers are increasingly interested in the similarities and differences between clairaudience and several other forms of voice-hearing, like those experienced by people living with mental illness.

For example, individuals with psychosis also frequently hear voices. By comparing such voices to the clairaudience reported by mediums, researchers have already begun to identify important differences that distinguish clairaudience from the experiences of people living with psychosis. For example, mediums tend to exert more control over their voices – and they report very little distress accompanying the experience.

Back in Liverpool in 1841, Mrs. Bates “rejoiced in the vision” of her friend at the end of her bed, while Elizabeth Morgan’s husband is said to have received “consolation in the valley of grief” when he learned of the vision. Hearing the dead is not necessarily a sign of mental distress – or supernatural possession. For mediums, it may be a source of comfort – a quality of the way that they experience reality.

About the Authors

Adam J. Powell, Assistant Professor (Research), Religion and Medical Humanities, Durham University and Peter Moseley, Senior Research Fellow, in the Deparment of Psychology ar Northumbria University

Want to read about more work like this?

You can read more about the work of our Psychopathologies group in the Health and Wellbeing Research blog

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Living with dementia during the pandemic

AUTHORS: Anna Svorenova and Dr Michael Craig

Medical discoveries, improved healthcare, and innovations in technology mean that people are living longer than ever. But this great news comes with a catch; age is the biggest risk factor for dementia.

Dementia is an umbrella term which refers to a group of neurodegenerative conditions that progressively damage the brain and impact a person’s thinking skills, often including their memory, attention, and language abilities. Current statistics suggest that around 850,000 people are living with dementia in the UK, and, strikingly, 1 in 3 people born today will develop dementia in their lifetime. By 2050, it is expected that there will be more than two million people in the UK with dementia.

For people in the later stages of dementia, completing even basic everyday tasks, such as counting money to pay for something in a shop, making a cup of tea, telling a story to a friend, or recognising a family member, might become difficult. Because of these challenges, people with dementia often rely on help from others. This can range from basic support to more complex care. In most cases, this help can only be delivered in person and not remotely or online. In-person social activities, for example, dementia cafes in the community, also play an important role in the social support network for people with dementia. 

These social support networks are important. In a recent study, it was found that people with dementia who live alone and are deprived of social interaction are more likely to experience loneliness, feelings of depression, and poorer quality of life. Social support and stimulation can also benefit thinking skills. A review of research findings found there was good evidence that engaging in stimulating activities can help to maintain and possibly even improve thinking skills in people with dementia. Amazingly, they suggested that social stimulation was more beneficial than any existing medications.

These findings show how important social networks and stimulation are in helping people with dementia to live healthy, independent lives. It is therefore reasonable to assume that any major disruption to these activities could have profound consequences. Unfortunately, the landscape for dementia support changed dramatically in early 2020.

On 23rd March 2020, the Prime Minister announced that the UK would enter a national lockdown to reduce the spread of a novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Since then, further lockdowns have been imposed alongside more general restrictions, including social distancing and stay at home guidance. These restrictions have helped reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and reduce fatalities, especially in high risk groups that included older adults and people with underlying health conditions such as dementia.

The wider impact of the pandemic on people with dementia and their close ones is being monitored closely by organisations such as the Alzheimer’s Society. This is partially because many people with dementia have had limited access to in-person support networks and activities in the year since the first lockdown was announced. This has included, for example, a limited ability to attend dementia cafes in the local community and an extended period where visits to care home residents were not permitted.

We know that these types of social activities are important for wellbeing and thinking skills, so what impact has this had? It is possible that lack of social interaction and engagement has negatively affected people with dementia through increased loneliness, feelings of depression, and encouraged declines in their thinking skills. This possibility is in keeping with a report from the Alzheimer’s Society in June 2020 that suggested that people with dementia were the “worst hit” by the initial lockdown, where a striking 82% of people affected by dementia reported an increase in dementia symptoms. Also, 79% of care home managers reported that lack of social contact had contributed to health and wellbeing deteriorations in their residents with dementia. Continuing research in this area will be important to help us understand the impact of the pandemic and how to best manage future possible lockdowns to protect people with dementia as best possible.

The dramatic change from normal ways of working meant that dementia organisations and service providers were required to respond rapidly and deliver social support in new ways that could be as impactful as possible. While in-person support will continue to hold a special role in the lives of those with dementia, one success story is the ability to deliver Playlist for Life activities online and remotely. Playlist for Life uses music from an individual’s life to stimulate conversations, singing, and general wellbeing. A 2017 review of research investigating the effectiveness of music therapy in dementia concluded that it is “the only convincingly effective intervention” for reducing behavioural symptoms, including aggression and agitation. During the pandemic, the Alzheimer’s Society successfully converted their Singing for the Brain activities to an online format that can be delivered through Zoom or over the phone (“Ring and Sing”). The flexibility of this programme and ability to deliver it online offers new opportunitis for ways to provide social support for people with dementia.

What does the future look like for providing social support to people with dementia? While the wider impact of the pandemic on people with dementia will not be known for a long time, green shoots are emerging. Vaccination rates are rising, and restrictions are easing, so it should be possible for people to return to attend regular social activities soon. It is hoped that we can also learn from the success of converting some social activities to run remotely. In the future, it might become standard practice to deliver a mix of in-person and remote social support activities that can improve accessibility for people who can’t attend in-person events. This could help these activities reach more people with dementia in the community. Research in this area could be of great benefit.

Dementia Action Week

This article was written for Dementia Action Week (17 – 23 May 2021), which is an annual weekly event to raise awareness of dementia. You can read about Dementia Action Week and how you can help here and by following #DAW2021 on social media.

Can you help with our research on this topic?

We are investigating whether people feel the coronavirus restrictions have affected their memory and general thinking skills. We hope the outcomes of this – and other excellent work being conducted around the world – can inform our understanding of the impact of social restrictions and how we care for people with dementia if we experience future pandemics.

The study is recruiting people aged 18 and over who live in the UK. You can read more about the study and take part here.

About the authors

Anna Svorenova is a 2nd Year Psychology student in the Department of Psychology. Dr Michael Craig is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology and a member of the Psychopathologies subgroup of our Health and Wellbeing Research Group. You can read more about the work of the group in the Health and Wellbeing blog

References

Abraha, I., Rimland, J. M., Trotta, F. M., Dell’Aquila, G., Cruz-Jentoft, A., Petrovic, M., … & Cherubini, A. (2017). Systematic review of systematic reviews of non-pharmacological interventions to treat behavioural disturbances in older patients with dementia. The SENATOR-OnTop series. BMJ open, 7(3), e012759.

Alzheimer Research UK. Dementia Statistics [2021]. Retrieved from: https://www.dementiastatistics.org/statistics/numbers-of-people-in-the-uk/

Alzheimer’s Society (2020) Worst hit: dementia during coronavirus. Accessed on 20th April 2021. Retrieved from: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/sites/default/files/2020-09/Worst-hit-Dementia-during-coronavirus-report.pdf

Alzheimer’s Society. Survey: Caring for a person living with dementia during the COVID-19 pandemic. [Online] 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/COVID-19-report-news

Pedersen, S. K., Andersen, P. N., Lugo, R. G., Andreassen, M., & Sütterlin, S. (2017). Effects of music on agitation in dementia: a meta-analysis. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 742.

Prince, M. et al. (2014) Dementia UK: Update Second Edition report produced by King’s College London and the London School of Economics for the Alzheimer’s Society

Victor, C. R., Rippon, I., Nelis, S. M., Martyr, A., Litherland, R., Pickett, J., … & IDEAL programme team. (2020). Prevalence and determinants of loneliness in people living with dementia: Findings from the IDEAL programme. International journal of geriatric psychiatry, 35(8), 851-858.

Wittenberg, R., Hu, B., Barraza-Araiza, L., & Rehill, A. (2019). Projections of older people with dementia and costs of dementia care in the United Kingdom, 2019–2040. Care Policy and Evaluation Centre, London School of Economics and Political Sciences.

Woods, B., Aguirre, E., Spector, A. E., & Orrell, M. (2012). Cognitive stimulation to improve cognitive functioning in people with dementia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (2).

Spotlight on: Dr Katri Cornelissen

Dr Katri Cornelissen is the Director of Transnational Education and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology. She is a researcher within our psychopathologies research group and teaches our very popular eating disorders option module.

Tell us about your career history

I have been at Northumbria University since 2002. Prior to this I worked at Newcastle University. While at Northumbria University my teaching has been mostly focused on eating disorders which is also my main research topic area and research skills. At my time at Newcastle University, I was mostly involved in clinical education, and a lot of teaching was within neuroscience.

What got you interested in psychology?

Originally, I wanted to understand how the human brain works and how much the brain can be retrained and whether this retraining changes the neural circuity. From there, my interests took me into clinical psychology and particularly I wanted to understand the consequences of brain trauma and infarct and how we can best rehabilitate individuals with severe brain damage. Through personal experience of eating disorders, my interest shifted with time more towards body image and eating disorders and trying to understand what causes eating disorders and how they can be treated.

What was the topic of your Phd?

My PhD was about Anorexia Nervosa and body image distortion in eating dsiorders.

What are your main areas of research currently?

My main research is currently within body image and body distortion. I do not anymore wish to single out eating disorders but am rather interested in investigating and trying to understand body image distortion in both non-clinical samples and various different clinical samples. I am also doing some research on social media impact on body image which is always a popular topic amongst students.

What one psychology book would you recommend?

There is too many to name one. I want to mention Andy Fields’ statistics book as the book still stays by my bedside and has done for years.

What would you have liked to do if you hadn’t followed a career in psychology?

I did not start my career as a psychologist. As a matter of fact my very first degree was in chemistry. Since then, I have visited speech pathology, linguistics, medicine, but I feel most comfortable in psychology. Lesson to learn – you can always change career, it will not harm you to be qualified in multiple areas.

On a personal note…

Most of you will discover sooner or later that I am a dedicated gym goer, and can be seen every morning at the gym (we have a great gym at the campus). However, even more of that, I am a dedicated rock climber and skier, and will take the opportunity to go to the mountains when I can. At those times you will not reach me by any means. I have a family, with one GCSE student and one A level student, so, trust me, I understand what you are going through.

Is there anything else you would like students to know?

At Northumbria we are relaxed and approachable, but we expect professional behaviour. We want to help you on your journey and want to support you. You will not be turned away if you wish to discuss topics in psychology. However, we are not there to give you answers. We are there to help you find the answers.

Sooner or later, you will discover that I have an accent. Please come and tell me your guess where I am originally from. I find that very entertaining. Most people do not guess. Equally most students cannot pronounce my surname. I do not mind if you get it wrong. I may get the pronunciation of your surname wrong which I do apologise for.

Want to hear more about Dr Cornelissens research?

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