Protecting Our Brains During the Pandemic

While most people think of COVID-19 as primarily affecting the lungs, the data on millions of patients shows it can damage other body systems, including the brain. Some patients have experienced serious brain inflammation, delirium, hallucinations, psychotic symptoms, and strokes. Others report a milder, but still troubling, set of symptoms that some experts are referring to as “brain fog” or “COVID brain,” characterized by headache, confusion, and memory problems. In some patients, these effects cleared up quickly, but in others—the so-called “long-haulers”—memory and thinking problems persist.

The Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), founded by AARP and Age UK, recently called for increased research on the neurological effects of the disease. These symptoms are especially common among older patients. In fact, the GCBH says, for over one-third of older adults with COVID-19, delirium was likely to be the first and even only symptom of the disease!

Experts also note that even people who have avoided infection by the virus report that they’re suffering thinking and memory problems, feeling forgetful, and making mistakes during simple tasks. Older adults may fear that they are experiencing the early signs of Alzheimer’s.

In fact, the life we are leading these days can be the culprit in these troubling symptoms. Stress, boredom, anxiety, and social isolation are very hard on the brain, and few of us have totally avoided those “side effects” of the pandemic. The GCBH says this can be especially hard for older adults. Many have been unable to see the people they love and depend on. They might also lack the ability to use video communication technologies. Some seniors with hearing loss have stopped using their hearing aids because wearing a mask at the same time is awkward—and if the other person is wearing a mask, the person with hearing loss can’t hear them as well or get cues from lip-reading.

During the past year, family caregivers also have been impacted by social isolation, economic hardship, and worry, all of which increase stress and can damage the brain. Caregivers whose loved ones have Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia are especially hard hit—as were their loved ones. The GCBH reported a 20% increase in Alzheimer’s-related deaths during the summer of 2020.

The GCBH offers ten recommendations to help older adults, family caregivers, and everyone protects their brain health at this time:

  1. Get the vaccine as soon as you are able.
  2. Stay physically active.
  3. Maintain a balanced diet.
  4. Stay socially connected.
  5. Maintain a regular sleep schedule.
  6. Stimulate your brain.
  7. Don’t put off necessary medical appointments.
  8. Take care of your mental health.
  9. Pay attention to signs of sudden confusion.
  10. Monitor changes in your brain health.

“While we know the risks for severe illness from COVID-19 increase with age, there is so much we still don’t know about the long-term effects of COVID-19 infection on our brains,” said Sarah Lenz Lock, AARP Senior Vice President for Policy and Executive Director of the GCBH. “Moving forward, it is vitally important to invest in research that examines the direct and indirect impacts of COVID on brain health and mental wellbeing.”

Source: IlluminAge AgeWise reporting on a study from the Global Council on Brain Health and AARP. You can download the entire “COVID-19 and Brain Health” report here.