Although SARS-CoV-2 was initially thought to be a respiratory virus, it has become increasingly clear that the virus can have serious consequences for brain health. Many people have experienced neurological symptoms — such as loss of taste and smell, headaches and memory and attention problems– when infected, and most people who develop long covid experience brain fog and cognitive issues like reduced concentration.
Now, new research suggests that COVID may also increase our risk of developing brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. The study, which was published this month in the Alzheimer’s Disease Journalfound that older people infected with COVID were 50-80% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than people who never had COVID.
Doctors don’t believe COVID directly causes Alzheimer’s disease, it unmasks an underlying disease or accelerates an illness that’s already simmering. Scientists are still learning about the ways COVID may impact our ability to learn, remember, concentrate and perceive, but research suggests that infectionsin general, can have a serious impact on our cognitive function, not only in the short term but also in the long term.
“These findings do not surprise me, as there is a growing understanding that medical stressors, from surgery to urinary tract infections, can lead to a sharp decline in cognitive abilities called ‘delirium’ or ‘encephalopathy’, which is increasingly recognized as a risk factor for later diagnosis of dementia,” said Dr. Joshua Cahanassistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told HuffPost.
People who contract COVID have an increased risk of cognitive impairment
Researchers assessed the health records of 6.2 million adults aged 65 and over who had received medical treatment between February 2020 and May 2020. At the start of the study, no one had previously been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Individuals were divided into two groups: people who had COVID (more than 400,000) and people who did not (about 5.8 million). The research team found that the risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease doubled, from 0.35% to 0.68%, in people with COVID. The risk was highest in women 85 years and older.
Whether COVID directly contributes to the development of Alzheimer’s disease or whether it accelerates degenerative changes in the brain that are already underway, the researchers say.
“This study shows that patients with dementia can be detected earlier due to COVID, but does not suggest that the infection itself causes dementia,” said Dr. Santosh Kesarineurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, and regional medical director of the Research Clinical Institute of Providence Southern California.
Researchers hope that future studies can uncover the specific pathways in which COVID affects brain function so that more targeted treatments and prevention methods can be developed. Historically, it has been difficult for scientists to develop treatments that target cognition, according to Cahan.
While researchers are studying various drugs — like antivirals, stimulants, and corticosteroids — the research is still in its early stages, and it’s unclear how much these approaches help improve cognition. “We haven’t firmly established the mechanisms of long COVID or Alzheimer’s disease, so our approach to treatment is limited,” Cahan said.
How Diseases Like COVID Cause Cognitive Decline
This is not the first study to find that Infectious diseases are associated with cognitive decline. Previous research shows that pneumonia, urinary tract infections, herpes virus infections, osteomyelitis and cellulite have all been associated with a higher risk of dementia. According to Cahan, we also know that COVID can lead to major issues with attention and processing speed in some patients.
Some experts think cognitive decline is caused by generalization inflammation that certain infections, including COVID, are triggered throughout the body. Higher levels of inflammation often go hand in hand with cognitive problems. According to Kesari, all this systemic inflammation caused by COVID can lead to inflammation of the brain – and to research shows that brain inflammation is at the origin of Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s also possible that there’s protein buildup linked to Alzheimer’s disease in critically ill or hospitalized patients, according to some to research.
“Longer-term follow-up is needed to see if these proteins persist and progress, as one would expect in Alzheimer’s disease,” Cahan said. It’s unclear exactly what causes Alzheimer’s disease, which is one of the main reasons why it’s so difficult for scientists to understand how COVID can lead to the disease, Cahan added.
Ultimately, while it’s clear that COVID and brain health are linked in some way, more research — and time — will be needed to better understand how different diseases and infections affect brain health. brain health. “We are currently in the phase where information is accumulating that COVID-19 leads to cognitive impairment, but the mechanisms are unclear,” Cahan said.
How to mitigate cognitive decline after COVID
Cahan said when he sees patients seriously struggling with cognitive decline after recovering from COVID, he often refers them to occupational therapy and speech therapy to help strengthen parts of their brains that have been weakened by the infection. Cognitive therapy, currently in progress investigation as a treatment for post-COVID cognitive impairment, may also help people develop new strategies to improve their cognition.
Cahan also generally recommends that people gradually build their cognitive endurance after COVID, rather than going from zero to 100 right after they recover. Healthy eating, physical activity, social relationships and managing stress are also crucial aspects of maintaining cognitive function, Kesari said.
If cognitive issues persist, it’s worth seeing a doctor to see if there’s anything else going on.
“All patients should undergo a thorough workup to look for other potential contributors like sleep disturbances, psychological distress, metabolic disorders, vitamin deficiencies, all of which have specific treatments,” Cahan said.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available at the time of publication, but advice may change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most current recommendations.