Pandemic stress caused accelerated aging in brains of teenagers, study finds

The COVID pandemic — or, rather, how it was handled by the authorities, say critics — caused the brains of teenagers to age unnaturally by a few years, according to a new study published in the “Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science” journal.

“Researchers from Stanford University analyzed MRI scans taken from people 15 to 18 years old before the pandemic and compared them with scans from their peers taken during the pandemic. The new scans showed teens’ brains looked about three years older than those of their pre-COVID counterparts,” USA Today reported Friday.

“Even though they were age-matched, their brains looked older. It confirms the stress that they experienced during the pandemic and the effects that they have had, not only on their mental health but on their brain, as well,” lead author Ian Gotlib of Stanford University said to the paper.

Scans of the kids’ brains also showed structural changes, as well as changes to the parts of the kids’ brains responsible for memory, concentration, learning, emotion, reactivity and judgment.

“They found adolescents assessed after the pandemic had larger hippocampal and amygdala volume, and reduced thickness of cortex tissue. The hippocampus and amygdala control access to memories and help modulate emotions, experts say, while cortex tissues involve executive functioning,” according to USA Today.

“It’s unclear how these structural changes in the brain will impact teens and what it means for their future, experts say, but it serves as quantitative evidence supporting higher rates of mental health disorders among teens since [the] pandemic,” USA Today notes.

The key thing to keep in mind is that, prior to this study, “research has only found accelerated changes in ‘brain age’ among children who experienced chronic adversity like violence, neglect, family dysfunction, or a combination of factors.”

Meaning that the changes in brain age suffered during the pandemic are unprecedented.

“Regrettably, the results of this new brain-based study are not surprising to folks in the clinical world,” Dr. R. Meredith Elkins of the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital told the paper.

“Since March 2020, our clinic has seen an objective increase in the severity of anxiety disorder, OCD, co-occurring depression and risk-related behaviors associated with distress,” she added.

Indeed, screenings show that about 60 percent of the clinic’s young patients have reported self-injury or suicidal thoughts in the past few years.

According to Elkins, some of the top sources of pandemic stress were lack of social support and isolation during the lockdowns, as well as the act of suddenly returning to school.

“You had this period of relative ease academically and then all of a sudden kids are back to school and the demands are ramped up. They have real concerns that they’ve fallen behind and can’t catch up,” she said.

Now, while the study doesn’t focus specifically on how pandemic policies affected the kids, most observers believe these are the real culprits — not the pandemic itself. And thus, critics blame the politicians responsible for these unnecessary policies.

Look:

Going forward, Gotlib, the lead researcher, and his team plan two actions. One, they intend to keep tracking the same kids to see if their brains ever sync back up. And two, they plan to also study the brain structures of kids who contracted COVID.

In the meantime, Elkins says the study’s findings are proof that more resources need to be directed toward taking care of young kids’ mental health.

“We need more sustainable federal and public investment to increase mental health care access for youth. Believe our kids that these issues require action,” she told USA Today.

This study follows similar studies that have found that certain pandemic policies like mask mandates did hurt children.

Indeed, one study released late last year by Brown University found that mask mandates and other COVID policies harmed the cognitive development of infants.

“We find that children born during the pandemic have significantly reduced verbal, motor, and overall cognitive performance compared to children born pre-pandemic,” the study’s authors wrote.

“Results highlight that even in the absence of direct SARS-CoV-2 infection and COVID-19 illness, the environmental changes associated with the COVID-19 pandemic is significantly and negatively affecting infant and child development,” they added.

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