Many people are becoming increasingly concerned about the side effects of wearing a face mask, including how they affect cognitive performance. As the world learns how to cope with the pandemic by wearing face masks, questions about the safety of them, especially in hot environments, have come to the forefront.
Face masks are recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. However, many people have raised concerns that working with a face mask may increase the risk for heat stress, thermal discomfort, and increased perceived breathlessness (dyspnea), which could impair cognitive function. By impairing cognitive performance, people may be jeopardizing occupational safety.
No Indications of Impaired Cognitive Function
A new study conducted by researchers at the Department of Nutrition, Exercise, and Sports at the University of Copenhagen, has found that face mask use does not affect indicators of cognitive performance during resting or performing moderate physical work in hot environments. The masks did present a problem when performing physically demanding work.
The study examined eight healthy, active males aged 27 to 41. They each sat in a climatic chamber regulated at 40°C and 20% humidity for 30 min to become accustomed to the testing conditions. Then they were required to exercise for 45 minutes at an intensity that simulates occupations with manual work.
All participants underwent assessments immediately before and after the bout of exercise. These included physiological, perceptual (thermal comfort and breathlessness) and motor-cognitive measurements (consisting of four different computer tasks relying on math ability and fine motor precision).
The study results published in the scientific journal, Temperature, concluded that although thermal discomfort did increase in both trials, face masks do not directly impair concentration or indicators of cognitive performance. However, they may restrict physically demanding work as face masks make it more difficult to breathe when performing physical work in a hot environment.
Lars Nybo, coordinator for the project, said, “We used an experimental setup that mimics tasks completed in many occupations and a protocol previously used to explore how heat-stress and dehydration markedly impair performance in tasks relying on the ability to concentrate and conduct complex motor-cognitive tasks. Although prolonged exposure with face masks while wearing normal workwear in a thermal-stressing environment elevated thermal discomfort in both trials, it did not lower scores in any of the motor-cognitive tasks that the participants completed. Indeed, the only measure worsened by wearing a mask was feelings of breathlessness.”
With many countries making face masks mandatory, it is important to know the possible restrictions they may cause. If wearing a mask for regular work, even in a hot environment, there is no risk of cognitive performance issues. Just be sure to keep well hydrated and take breaks from the mask if needed.