Report: COVID-19 can take toll on brain

Besides COVID-19’s widely known respiratory effects, the virus can also damage brain health. That’s the news in a new Global Council on Brain Health report warns that offers 10 suggestions to maintain brain health during the pandemic.

“While we know the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age, there is so much we still don’t know about the long-term effects on our brains,” said Sarah Lenz Lock, an AARP senior vice president and executive director of the council. “It is vitally important to invest in research that examines the direct and indirect impacts of COVID on brain health and mental well-being.”

The council (GCBH) report, released in March, explores direct and indirect ways COVID-19 may undermine brain health, especially for people with dementia.

The report also reviews specific neurological symptoms, which can include delirium, a sudden change in thinking, and behavior. One study found that 37 percent of older adults arriving at emergency rooms with COVID-19 had signs of delirium, but no other common COVID-19 symptoms.

According to the report, the pandemic has taken a widespread toll on mental well-being, which ultimately impacts brain health. Heightened health risks, uncertainty, reduced social engagement, new routines and economic hardship all loom large during this pandemic and can trigger or amplify feelings of stress.

The report further notes a significant and negative impact on people living with dementia. In the United States, deaths attributed to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia rose more than 20 percent above normal during the summer of 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s still unknown whether the virus caused the additional deaths or whether dementia accounted for an increase in COVID-19 infections.

Despite the challenges of living through a pandemic, there are evidence-based steps anyone can take to help protect brain health. The GCBH recommends:

  • Getting the vaccine as soon as possible.
  • Stay physically active.
  • Maintain a balanced diet.
  • Stay socially connected.
  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule.
  • Stimulate your brain.
  • Don’t put off necessary medical appointments.
  • Pay attention to signs of sudden confusion, and monitor changes in brain health.

The pandemic has highlighted health disparities and long-standing inequalities that can affect brain health and mental well-being, according to the GCBH. It calls for governments to better support citizens who are at increased risk of COVID-19, including older adults and racial and ethnic minorities.

“Even though there is much still to be learned about how COVID-19 affects our thinking, the GCBH wanted everyone to know this is a well-recognized problem,” said Dr. Marilyn Albert, the council’s chairwoman. She also is a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University.

“There are ways to address (brain health) during the pandemic and to address some of the negative effects of the isolation that many people are experiencing,” Albert said.