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Long-Term Implications: COVID-19 Linked to Cognitive Decline

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We are well into our second year of the COVID-19 pandemic — even though it feels much longer, in some ways, with new coronavirus variants spreading across the country. The reality is, though, we’re still learning key facts about COVID-19 each day, and health experts around the globe have yet to fully understand the long-term health implications of having COVID-19.

On top of the long-term health effects, some people also have COVID-19 symptoms for a long time, too. Sometimes referred to as “COVID long-haulers,” these individuals experience lingering symptoms months after first becoming infected. These “long COVID” symptoms range from mild to severe, and from the physical to psychological. But what about the possibility of long-term effects for years to come?

COVID-19 and Cognitive Symptoms

Researchers who are studying the long-term effects of having COVID-19 show evidence that it may be linked to cognitive decline and acceleration of Alzheimer’s-like symptoms. They report finding memory issues and biological markers similar to those in Alzheimer’s patients — something our experts have seen, too. “Both COVID-19 and Alzheimer’s are marked by inflammation of the brain,” says surgeon Michael Yurso, MD.

Struggles With Forgetfulness

A study of more than 200 adults ages 60 and older showed that more than half still struggled with forgetfulness three to six months after getting COVID-19. About a quarter of them experienced additional cognitive difficulties.

Whether or not they experienced cognitive challenges wasn’t influenced by the severity of their illness, but researchers noticed that people who experienced loss of smell as a symptom were more likely to have cognitive issues.

It’s unknown whether the virus accelerates a pre-existing condition or pre-disposal to cognitive impairment, or if it causes an Alzheimer’s-like process to start.

Staying Physically Healthy Can Help the Brain, Too

It’s hard to say if these patients will eventually fully recover, but our experts are hopeful. “Patients can decrease their risk of cognitive impairment by staying physically and mentally active, staying socially engaged and eating well,” says Dr. Yurso.

“The brain is amazingly pliable and taking these measures can reduce the risk of impairment or the cognitive issues from progressing.”

Other Long-Term COVID-19 Symptoms to Know

With about 10% of COVID-19 patients considered long-haulers, it’s clear that long-term symptoms are possible if you become infected. These are the most common symptoms of long-COVID-19, or post-acute sequelae (PASC):

  • Anxiety
  • Brain fog
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sleep disturbances or disorders

What to Do if You’re a COVID-19 Long-Hauler

While a negative COVID-19 test weeks after becoming infected makes a person less likely to be contagious, they may struggle with these lingering symptoms for weeks or months. Fatigue and having trouble completing simple tasks may cause exhaustion, too.

“If you tested positive for COVID-19 over a month ago and you’re still having symptoms, get in touch with your primary care physician as soon as possible,” says Dr. Yurso.

“Your doctor can evaluate your respiratory, cardiovascular and neurological health. Long-haulers need to get plenty of rest, stay hydrated, limit stress and eat a healthy diet, and seeing your primary care doctor is a great first step to start healing.”

If you’ve had COVID-19 and are still struggling with lingering symptoms, you can still get your COVID-19 vaccine for further protection. Make sure to wait at least ten days after showing symptoms to get vaccinated.

Here for You for the Long Haul

We’re here to help you not only stay safe from COVID-19 but help you start healing if you’re a COVID-19 long-hauler. And if you’re not sick, it’s important to reduce the chances of contracting it by getting your COVID-19 vaccine, wearing your mask (especially indoors in public), washing your hands frequently and physical distancing. Check out our Coronavirus Resource Hub for more information on COVID-19, long-term symptoms, answers to FAQs and more.

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