CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — The vast majority of people dealing with “long COVID” are experiencing memory and concentration problems — months after their actual coronavirus infection, a new study warns. Researchers at the University of Cambridge say seven in 10 people experiencing the lingering effects of COVID are now struggling mentally.
The study finds long COVID patients are also performing worse on cognitive exams. Moreover, three in four people with a severe case of long COVID say they have been unable to work because of it.
The team also found a link between the severity of symptoms and how much fatigue, dizziness, and headache pain patients experienced during their initial bout with the virus. Worryingly, half of long COVID sufferers claim they’ve struggled to get doctors to take their condition seriously.
“Long COVID has received very little attention politically or medically. It urgently needs to be taken more seriously, and cognitive issues are an important part of this. When politicians talk about ‘Living with COVID’ – that is, unmitigated infection, this is something they ignore. The impact on the working population could be huge,” says study senior author Dr. Lucy Cheke in a university release.
“People think that long COVID is ‘just’ fatigue or a cough, but cognitive issues are the second most common symptom – and our data suggest this is because there is a significant impact on the ability to remember.”
Long COVID patients dealing with brain fog, forgetfulness
Researchers say there is growing evidence that COVID-19 impacts the brain, with multiple studies likening its impact to Alzheimer’s disease.
“Infection with the virus that causes COVID-19 can lead to inflammation in the body, and this inflammation can affect behavior and cognitive performance in ways we still don’t fully understand, but we think are related to an early excessive immune response,” says Dr. Muzaffer Kaser.
“It’s important that people seek help if they’re concerned about any persistent symptoms after COVID infection. COVID can affect multiple systems and further assessment is available in long COVID clinics across the UK, following a GP referral.”
Of the 181 people who took part in the study, 78 percent reported difficulty concentrating, 69 percent said they experienced “brain fog,” 68 percent had moments of forgetfulness, and three in five had problems finding the right words while speaking. These self-reported symptoms were confirmed by the significantly lower ability among long COVID sufferers to remember words and pictures in cognitive tests.
Severe cases of COVID leading to more cognitive issues
During the study, participants took part in several tasks to assess their decision-making abilities and memory. These included remembering words in a list and remembering which two images appeared together. Results revealed a consistent pattern of ongoing memory problems in those who previously suffered a coronavirus infection.
Study authors say these problems were more pronounced in people whose overall ongoing symptoms were more severe. The researchers investigated other symptoms that could have a link to long COVID to help them pinpoint their causes.
They found people who experienced fatigue and neurological symptoms, such as dizziness and headache, during their initial illness were more likely to have cognitive symptoms later on. They also found that those who were still experiencing neurological symptoms particularly struggled on cognitive tests.
Results show that, even among people who did not need to go to the hospital, those with worse initial symptoms of COVID-19 were more likely to have a variety of ongoing long COVID symptoms including nausea, abdominal pain, chest tightness, and breathing issues weeks and months later. Those symptoms were likely to be more severe than in people whose initial illness was mild.
‘A huge impact on my life’
Study authors also found that people over 30 were more likely to have severe ongoing symptoms than younger COVID patients. The findings are of particular concern given the prevalence of long COVID, which health experts estimate could affect between 10 and 25 percent of people who test positive for COVID.
“Having been fit and active all my life, after catching COVID-19 during the first wave, my son (then 13) and I didn’t seem to recover. We were left with debilitating fatigue and a confusing mix of strange and life changing symptoms. I was also left with significant neurological symptoms, including speech and language issues, which had a huge impact on my life,” explains long COVID patient Lyn Curtis.
“My other children also experienced significant ongoing symptoms every time we were re-infected, such as changes to periods, fatigue, insomnia, changes in mood, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and nose bleeds,” Curtis continues. “The acknowledgement of long COVID and a greater understanding of the associated symptoms is essential both for identifying treatments and the management of existing symptoms. The work into the effects on cognition are especially important to me, as this is the ongoing symptom that impacts the most on my quality of life and ability to work.”
The researchers add long COVID is causing and will continue to cause high rates of workplace absences and disruptions to society. They say it is important not just for sufferers themselves but for society as a whole to understand what causes the condition and how to treat it.
The findings are published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.
South West News Service contributed to this report.