Just when we thought we had a handle on Covid, research surrounding some of the lasting effects of Covid-19 in those who had a particularly severe case of the virus/disease has reared its unsettling head.
Recent research findings regarding the effects of Covid have prompted a bit of worry, concern, and warning, particularly concerning the health of your brain.
These findings are specific to those who suffered with a severe case of Covid, and it appears that the lasting symptom once described as a bit of fatigue and brain fog is now seeming to be something much worse.
So, let’s dig into the findings of such studies and see what the science says regarding the cognitive effects of Covid.
Research Findings On Cognitive Decline And Covid
Now that we’ve had a few years of battling Covid (collectively) under our belts, scientists are able to study the effects of this disease, examining study participants and their Covid experiences.
One particular study examined 46 participants who had recovered from a severe (critical care needed) case of Covid-19. And, as researchers didn’t have test results from patients before they were ill with Covid, they compared findings with a matched control group of 460 people.
In this study, a testing instrument called Cognitron was used to measure how participants were doing in cognitive areas such as memory, reasoning, and attention.
They also tested regarding anxiety, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder, all commonly reported by those who have experienced a severe case of Covid.
The results were mapped to gauge how far participants had deviated from expectations in conjunction with their age and demographic, based on 66,008 members of the general public.
Unfortunately, the findings paint a grim picture.
Those who had overcome particularly intense cases of Covid “were less accurate and had slower response times than the general public.”
The effects of the disease 6 months after infection in these patients was to be equal to that of 20 years of aging.
This would be the equivalent of losing 10 IQ points and is comparable to the cognitive decline seen in patients aging from year 50 to year 70.
More specifically, these cognitive changes were similar to what is seen in early dementia or general aging.
The senior author of this study, David Menon from the University of Cambridge in the UK, described the findings as following: “cognitive impairment is common to a wide range of neurological disorders, including dementia, and even routine aging, but the patterns we saw – the cognitive ‘fingerprint’ of Covid-19 – was distinct from all of these.”
Knowing that this study involved 46 patients who’d received critical care at one specific hospital in Cambridge, and knowing the multitudes who’ve needed critical care stemming from Covid complications all around the world, is a cause for concern.
A survey done in the UK found that 1 in 7 people reported experiencing cognitive problems up to 12 weeks post-Covid recovery.
Even individuals who only had a mild case of Covid report ongoing cognitive symptoms.
And, between one third and three fourths of those hospitalized with Covid claim to still be suffering from cognitive impairment three to six months after infection.
Some patients with minor Covid infections are reporting only slow improvements regarding such cognitive impairments nearly 10 months after recovery.
Researchers hypothesize there could be a very large number of individuals with similar problems involving cognitive functioning and suggest further investigation be done regarding how these individuals can be helped.
The average “complaint” of those who had a severe case of Covid is that people are experiencing difficulties articulating thoughts or “finding the right word” as well as feeling like their brain is operating at a slower rate.
And, these complaints are in line with the findings in this referenced study.
What Is It About Covid That Seems To Affect Cognitive Function?
So then, what is it about Covid infection that is affecting our brains?
Early research regarding the effects of severe Covid cases showed that the brain decreased glucose consumption in the areas associated with working memory, attention, and problem solving, the frontoparietal network.
This initially led scientists to believe these effects were from the virus alone.
But, while the viral infection itself isn’t being ruled out as the culprit here, in this latest study researchers believe a combination of factors are at fault.
Severe Covid cases often experience reduced levels of oxygen, reduced blood supply, clotting in blood vessels, and microscopic bleeds, all of which appear to be contributing to significant and lasting cognitive decline.
Another culprit in the case is the body’s own immune system.
The inflammatory responses of the immune system, caused by Covid infection, could be causing damage to the brain as well.
Researchers believe “future work will be focused on mapping these cognitive deficits to underlying neural pathologies and inflammatory biomarkers, and to longitudinally track recovery into the chronic phase.”
This research was published in eClinical Medicine, and though the paper isn’t published as a means to alarm each person who’s already had Covid, it does prompt those in the science and research community to further examine these cognitive changes being experienced to begin to understand ways in which these symptoms can be lessened or alleviated altogether.
Unfortunately, until more is understood about these seemingly lasting effects in those who’ve experienced a severe case of Covid, the most comfort researchers can bring to individuals still feeling the cognitive effects of the disease is that these sufferers are certainly not alone.
It is important to remember that those most at risk for severe cases of Covid-19 are older adults (over the age of 65) and individuals of any age with multiple underlying medical conditions.