Is COVID-19 Causing a Cognitive Disorder Epidemic?

August 2, 2021

Experts warn of an unraveling “cognition crisis” in the COVID-19 pandemic world, warning people of the personal, social, and economic consequences. More than 50% of recovering COVID-19 patients, for instance, experience fatigue as well as brain fog, and there isn’t a shortage of studies raising the alarm on lasting impacts and impairment of executive function, cognitive control, and other brain functions. 

The catch: These coronavirus-induced cognitive deficits may last years and a considerable time beyond the infection. 

Cognitive Issues in the Current Health Crisis 

Mild as well as serious impairments of cognitive skills – such as memory, attention, recall, language, and reasoning – can coexist with disorders such as anxiety and depression, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dyslexia, bipolar condition, and addition, to name a few. 

An increasingly aging population is likely to exacerbate the problem. By the year 2060, people aged 65 and above are poised to double.

COVID-19 can affect the brain and cognition in diverse ways. Here are some of them:

  • Brain damage from lack of oxygen. In autopsy data from Finnish COVID patients, a major concern is brain damage from oxygen deprivation. Several patients autopsied in fact didn’t show signs of brain injury during their infection, yet everyone had brain damage while they were alive. 
  • Anxiety and depression. These are commonly observed long-term psychological effects of ICU stay, confirmed across studies in the United Kingdom, Finland, and Canada. 
  • Profound cognitive impairment. When tested, this appears to be comparable to moderate traumatic brain injury. This affects memory, attention, and executive function, leading to difficulties in managing finances and everyday routine, comprehending words and writing, and even simply carrying on a conversation with friends and loved ones. 
  • Encephalitis and stroke. Brain damage among patients also potentially leads to encephalitis as well as strokes, with senior patients particularly at risk for the latter. Even young individuals aren’t spared; they are seven times more likely to have strokes from the coronavirus than with the typical flu. 
  • Cognitive issues in cancer patients. Deficits in visual working memory, learning, and sustained attention are commonly seen in cancer patients and those in remission. These cancer and chemotherapy-related effects known as “chemo brain” have been previously observed, the coronavirus can take the cognitive problems further. 

What Can Be Done

Health care experts are quick to warn that cases of these cognitive issues related to COVID-19, while some are subtle, are on the rise. 

One usual conclusion is that coronavirus infection may lead to brain damage, particularly in the elderly aged 70 and above. Sometimes the damage is obvious, while at other times it is mild and shows difficulties with sustaining attention and new learning.

Their risk for other conditions later in life, including Alzheimer’s disease, might also increase. 

Increased and sustained neuropsychological testing, as well as the needed interventions beyond infection period, are some solutions to this exploding problem. On the individual level, smart dietary and lifestyle strategies after a bout of COVID illness are recommended, even including getting a head start in cognitive enhancement via supplementation as deemed crucial and appropriate by one’s health care provider.

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