This Is Your Brain on COVID-19
In yet another indication many people’s idea that COVID-19 is “no worse than the common cold” is incorrect, a new study published last month in the journal Lancet Psychiatry looked at the longer-term effects of the virus on the brain.
It found that those who got COVID-19 had a higher risk of developing such brain disorders as dementia and brain fog up to two years after recovery from the initial infection, compared with those who had other respiratory illnesses.
Our primary care doctors in Delray Beach wanted to share this information with you, because we’ve been hearing from so many people lately that they’re “ready to move on” from taking any precautions to keep from getting the virus.
While it’s true that during the course of infection many experience nothing more than a few sniffles or slight aches and fever, or even no symptoms at all, others have far more serious symptoms. And nearly 500 Americans continue to die from COVID-19 every day, even with the treatments we now have available.
Then there are the symptoms of long COVID, which recent research estimates could affect up to 30 percent of those who become infected: severe fatigue, shortness of breath, chest and muscle pain, gastrointestinal symptoms, dizziness, and brain fog, among over 200 other reported effects.
One of the most worrisome consequences associated with long COVID was highlighted in a study released in February in the journal Nature Medicine. Using data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), researchers tracked more than 153,000 veterans who had been infected with the coronavirus for a year after they recovered.
They found that, compared with those who had never been infected, those who had COVID-19 were 60 percent more likely to experience such long-term effects as heart failure, heart attacks, strokes, inflammatory heart disease, irregular heart rhythms, and potentially deadly clotting in the legs and lungs.
In addition, this past March researchers from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Saint Louis Health Care System reviewed the records of 181,000 patients between March 2020 and September 2021. They found that people who had recovered from COVID-19 were 40 percent more likely to develop a new case of diabetes, compared with more than 4.1 million VA patients who were not infected over the same time frame.
Impacts on the brain
Besides these and other potentially serious impacts throughout the body, several studies have begun to find significant neurological effects in many of those who have been infected.
For example, one study, published in March in the journal Nature, found that even a mild case of COVID-19 resulted in subtle brain tissue damage, including loss of brain volume.
All 785 participants had undergone brain scans both before and after contracting COVID-19. The British team from Oxford found that the subjects’ brains showed greater tissue loss in specific regions of the brain relating to smell, as well as a larger reduction in overall brain size.
This newest study, by researchers at the University of Oxford, builds on previous findings about the impact of the virus on the brain. For this study, researchers examined heath records data from more than a million people around the world, including the U.S., Australia, Britain, Spain, India, and Taiwan, for people diagnosed with COVID-19 between January 20, 2020, and April 13, 2022.
The good news: Those who reported such aftereffects as depression and anxiety following an infection saw their symptoms resolve within two months.
The bad news: Those who had been infected were at greater risk of developing dementia, epilepsy, insomnia, stroke, and brain fog up to two years after infection.
The researchers found that:
- 4.5 percent of those over 65 developed dementia in the two years after infection, compared to 3.3 percent of the control group.
- There were also 85 cases of psychotic disorders among patients over 65 for every 10,000 people following a COVID-19 infection.
- Among those between the ages of 18 and 64, 6.4 percent reported brain fog after two years, compared to 5.5 percent of the control group.
- Children were twice as likely to develop epilepsy or seizures within two years of a COVID-19 infection compared to those who’d had other respiratory infections.
“The findings shed new light on the longer-term mental and brain health consequences for people following COVID-19 infection,” Max Taquet, who led the analysis, said in a University of Oxford news release.
Prevention is still best
“The results have implications for patients and health services and highlight the need for more research to understand why this happens after COVID-19, and what can be done to prevent these disorders from occurring or treat them when they do,” he added.
Until we know a great deal more about the long-term effects of COVID-19, our Delray Beach primary care doctors will continue to urge our patients to take precautions against becoming infected in the first place.
This means continuing to wear high-quality masks (N95s are best) in indoor spaces, limiting train, bus, and air travel, and avoiding eating in indoor restaurants.