October 11, 2022 – Weeks after being infected with COVID-19 in November 2020, Jeannie Volpe was unable to continue her work as a leader of sexual assault support groups in Anniston, AL because she kept forgetting the details survivors shared with her. “People told me they needed to review their traumatic memories, which isn’t fair to anyone,” says the 47-year-old.
Volpe was diagnosed long COVID autonomic dysfunction, which includes severe muscle pain, depression, anxiety, and a loss of the ability to think. Commonly known as brain fog, some of its symptoms are among the most common issues reported by people experiencing long-term problems after a bout of COVID-19.
Many experts and medical professionals say they haven’t even scratched the surface of what impact this will have for years to come.
“I’m very concerned that we have an epidemic of neurological dysfunction,” she says Pamela DavisMD, PhD, Research Professor in the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
In the 2 years that Volpe is long living with COVID, her executive role is – the mental processes that enable people to focus their attention, retain information, and multitask – weakened so much that she had to relearn how to drive. One of the various doctors who examined her has suggested speech therapy to help Volpe relearn how to form words. “I can see the words I want to say in my head, but I can’t get them over my mouth,” she says in a lazy voice that betrays her condition.
All these symptoms make it difficult for her to take care of herself. With no job or health insurance, Volpe says she researched assisted suicide in states that allow it, but ultimately decided she wanted to live.
“People tell you things like, you should be thankful you survived and you should; but you shouldn’t expect someone not to grieve after losing their autonomy, their career, their finances.”
Findings from researchers studying the effects of COVID-19 on the brain reinforce what people with long COVID have been dealing with from the start. Your experiences are not imaginary; they are consistent with neurological disorders – including myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome or ME/CFS – which carry much more weight in the public imagination than the term brain fogwhich can often be used pejoratively.
Studies have found that COVID-19 is linked to conditions such as stroke; seizures; and mood, memory, and movement disorders.
While there are still many unanswered questions about exactly how COVID-19 affects the brain and what the long-term effects are, there is ample reason that people should try to avoid both infection and reinfection until researchers learn more get answers.
It is estimated that COVID-19 has contributed to more than 40 million new cases of neurological diseases worldwide Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, a clinical epidemiologist and longtime COVID researcher at Washington University in St. Louis. In his latest study From 14 million medical records from the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the country’s largest integrated healthcare system, researchers found that people who have had COVID-19, regardless of age, gender, race, and lifestyle, are at greater risk of a broad spectrum of 44 neurological disorders after the first year of infection.
He noted that some of the disorders, such as headaches and a mild decline in memory and acuity, can improve and go away over time. But others that have emerged, such as stroke, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), and Guillain-Barré syndrome (a rare condition in which the body’s immune system attacks nerves), often result in permanent damage. Al-Aly’s team found that people with COVID-19 were 7% more likely to develop neurological disorders than those who had never been infected.
Additionally, the researchers found that the risk of post-COVID thinking problems was more pronounced in people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s compared to control groups – a group that would normally be very unlikely to have these problems. The risks are less pronounced in those over 60 because such thought disorders are no longer so rare at this stage of life.
Another study of the veterans system last year showed that COVID-19 survivors were at a 46% higher risk Consider suicide after 1 year.
“We have to pay attention to that,” says Al-Aly. “What we’ve seen is really just the tip of the iceberg.” He fears millions of people, including young people, will lose their jobs and education while struggling with long-term disabilities – and the economic and social impact of such fallout. “What will remain for all of us are the aftermath of the sheer devastation in some people’s lives,” he says.
Igor Koralnik, MD, chief of the Department of Neuroinfectious Diseases and Global Neurology at Northwestern University in Chicago, has long led a specialized COVID clinic. his team published a paper in March 2021 in detail what they saw in their first 100 patients. “About half of the study participants missed at least 10 workdays. This will have a lasting impact on the workforce,” said Koralnik said in a podcast published on the Northwest website. “We have seen that patients not only have symptoms, but also have a reduced quality of life.”
For older people and their caregivers, the risk of potential neurodegenerative diseases that the virus has been shown to accelerate, such as dementia, is also a major concern. Alzheimer’s is that fifth leading cause of death for people over 65.
in one Recent study Out of more than 6 million people over the age of 65, Davis and her team at Case Western found that the risk of Alzheimer’s increased by 50% to 80% in the year after COVID-19. The chances were particularly high for women over 85.
To date, there are no good treatments for Alzheimer’s, but the total health care costs of long-term care and hospice services for people with dementia exceeded $300 billion in 2020. This does not even include the associated costs for the families.
“The downstream effect of someone with Alzheimer’s being cared for by a family member can be devastating for everyone,” she says. “Sometimes the supervisors don’t get over it so well.”
When Davis’ own father developed Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 86, her mother took care of him until one morning while having breakfast, she suffered a stroke. Davis attributes the stroke to nursing stress. This left Davis with no choice but to find a place to live that would support both of her parents.
Looking at the bigger picture, Davis believes that widespread isolation, loneliness and grief during the pandemic, and the disease COVID-19 itself, will continue to have a profound impact on psychiatric diagnoses. This in turn could trigger a wave of new substance abuse as a result of unexplained mental health problems.
Still, not all brain experts jump at worst-case scenarios, as there is still a lot to understand before sounding the alarm. Johanna HellmuthMD, a neurologist and researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, warns against reading too much into early data, including any assumptions that COVID-19 causes neurodegeneration, or irreversible damage to the brain.
This is even shown by before-and-after brain scans by researchers at Oxford University structural changes in the brain After infection, she points out that they didn’t actually examine the clinical symptoms of the subjects in the study, so it’s too early to draw any conclusions about associated cognitive problems.
“It’s an important piece of the puzzle, but we don’t know how that fits with everything else,” says Hellmuth. “Some of my patients are getting better. … I haven’t seen a single person get worse since the pandemic began, and that’s why I’m hopeful.”