As researchers continue to publish the findings of their numerous COVID-19 studies, new long-term effects of the virus are still being discovered. Earlier this year, we reported on COVID nails and COVID tongue. We also told you about COVID toes and hair loss. All of these unusual symptoms can appear months after infection.
We’ve also shared research that indicates some women with long COVID have experienced menstrual changes. And some men have experienced erectile dysfunction (ED) long after their other COVID symptoms have subsided.
Now, there’s a new study that suggests there’s another potential side effect of COVID-19—brain fog and memory loss.
Cognitive Issues Persist In Patients of All Ages
A study that was recently published in JAMA Network Open seems to indicate that brain fog could be a consequence of COVID-19. The study analyzed data from 740 participants and found that a significant portion had some kind of cognitive deficit.
The mean age of the study participants was 49 years old, and all had tested positive for COVID-19 within the previous seven months.
According to the study’s lead author, things like brain fog, memory loss, trouble thinking, and other cognitive issues persisted long after the virus was gone. And it happened to people of all ages.
The Most Common Problem
Getting into the details of the study, the most common issues reported by participants were memory encoding (learning new information) and memory recall. The researchers found that 24 percent of participants had issues with memory encoding, while 23 percent had issues with memory recall.
The study also found that patients who ended up in the hospital because of COVID-19 were at a greater risk of suffering from a cognitive deficit compared to those who weren’t hospitalized.
Not What They Expected
Lead study author Jacqueline H. Becker Ph.D.—a clinical neuropsychologist and associate scientist in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City Becker—explained that she and her colleagues expected older patients would be the ones experiencing the cognitive issues. But to their surprise, most of the patients they looked at were “fairly young.”
“We started to see that, over time, so many patients complained of these residual difficulties. We just wanted to get a sense of what was going on,” Becker told Health.
How Is COVID-19 Causing Brain Fog?
Becker says that researchers have a number of hypotheses when it comes to how COVID-19 is causing brain fog, but they “really don’t have the answer just yet.”
She noted that some autopsy studies suggest that one possible cause is that the virus that causes COVID-19—SARS-CoV-2—may “directly invade the central nervous system and brain.” However, she warns that those studies are “obviously biased” because those findings were from people who didn’t survive the virus.
There’s also a theory that some folks may develop hypoxia (a lack of oxygen to bodily tissues, like the brain) when they are infected with COVID-19. It’s possible that brain fog could be an aftereffect of the hypoxia.
The theory that Becker says “tends to be the most likely at this point” is that brain fog could be the result of the virus causing chronic inflammation, which it apparently can do even after someone has recovered from COVID.
“Cognitive dysfunction is likely multifactorial and may be a result of direct viral effects on the central nervous system, immune effects, some baseline risk factors or a combination of all,” infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja—senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Maryland—told Health. “In severe patients, sedatives and other ICU medications may play a role.”
Another Symptom of Long COVID
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people can develop conditions weeks after contracting COVID-19. This is referred to as “long COVID,” which features a number of symptoms that can show up a month or more after testing positive for the virus.
In addition to brain fog, the CDC acknowledges that other symptoms of long COVID can include:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Tiredness or fatigue
- Symptoms that get worse after physical or mental activities
- Chest or stomach pain
- Fast-beating or pounding heart
- Joint or muscle pain
- Pins-and-needles feeling
- Sleep problems
- Dizziness on standing
- Mood changes
- Change in smell or taste
- Changes in menstrual period cycles
What To Do If You Develop Brain Fog
Doctors and researchers say that brain fog is not rare in COVID patients. So, if it happens to you, Becker advises to “definitely” see your primary care physician and let them know what’s happening.
If you have access to some kind of post-COVID care center, Becker says to “get a formal evaluation.” If it persists, she recommends seeing a neuropsychologist so you can be evaluated and tracked. However, you shouldn’t expect any kind of treatment.
“We don’t know if certain treatments for cognitive impairment like cognitive rehab will be helpful for this population,” Becker says.
There’s Still A Lot To Learn
If you experience brain fog after a COVID-19 infection, Dr. Adalja says it’s unclear how long it will last. The good news is that the brain fog “likely dissipates over time in most patients.”
Becker agrees, noting that this is still “an area of active study.” She says that doctors and researchers are still learning. In her study, there was still a “high level of impairment” more than seven months after infection. But, she says it “could resolve after, say, 10 months.” Or, it’s possible it could “last much longer.”