Researchers are finding COVID-19 can affect the body in many ways, now including increasing the risk of memory loss and cognitive decline. While it is unclear how many patients will suffer from neurological problems due to COVID-19, studies are beginning to show associations between the coronavirus and the brain.
What is known is that many patients suffering from COVID-19 exhibit neurological symptoms such as loss of smell, delirium, and an increased risk of stroke. Studies show there are also longer-lasting consequences for the brain, including myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome and Guillain-Barre syndrome.
Mounting evidence suggests indirect actions can be triggered by the virus’s infection of epithelial cells and the cardiovascular system. It may also be caused by the immune system and inflammation contributing to lasting neurological changes after COVID-19.
As COVID-19 involves a large release of inflammatory signals, the impact of the virus on memory is particularly interesting for researchers. They are finding that there are both short-term effects on cognition, and also a potential for long-term changes in memory, attention, and cognition. There is also an increased risk for cognitive decline and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, after COVID-19 during aging.
Long-lasting changes in the brain after illness are closely linked to cognition and dementia because the disruptive and destructive actions of neuroimmune cells and inflammatory signaling can permanently impair memory.
This occurs through permanent damage to the neuronal connections or neurons themselves. It can also happen through subtle changes in neuron function.
Researchers are using observations of other illnesses to find the potential connection between COVID-19 and persistent effects of memory. For example, many patients who recover from a heart attack or bypass surgery report lasting cognitive decline during aging.
Sepsis, another major illness, has been found to show similar cognitive complications such as memory decline and changes in neuroimmune and neuronal function that persist weeks and months after the illness. All of these associations with inflammation and cognitive decline add to mounting evidence that more focus needs to be on prevention of brain impairment after illness. Researchers have now found that even mild inflammation, including chronic stress, are now recognized as risk factors for dementia and cognitive decline during aging.
Increased Dementia Cases
So, does this mean there will be a COVID-19-related wave of memory deficits, cognitive decline, and dementia cases in the future?
Researchers believe COVID-19 will continue to impact health well after the pandemic is over. Because of this, it is critical for physicians to assess the effects of Sars-Cov-1 illness in patients with higher risk levels of disease to later cognitive decline.
In doing so, experts should be able to gain critical new insight into the role of inflammation across the lifespan in age-related cognitive decline. This can eventually aid in the development of more effective treatments and prevention methods for the debilitating illness.