Research Likens COVID's Effect on Brain to Aging From 50 to 70

Severity of the illness appears linked to degree of decline
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted May 4, 2022 7:50 PM CDT
Research Likens COVID's Effect on Brain to Aging From 50 to 70
A worker wearing a protective suit swabs a man's throat for a COVID-19 test Wednesday in Beijing.   (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

(Newser) – Researchers have found that the effects of long COVID can include starting a cognitive decline comparable to the person aging mentally 20 years. The UK study's senior author said the severity of the decline is tied to the seriousness of the person's illness, the Guardian reports. The virus affects "a variety of organs in the body, including the brain and our cognitive function and our psychological health," said David Menon, a professor at Cambridge University. "If you can have a vaccine, and all your doses, you will have less severe illness. So all of these problems are going to be less."

The study compared the results on eight cognitive tests from about 46 patients, six months after they were admitted to a hospital, to those of 460 people who had not contracted COVID-19. Researchers matched 10 people from the larger group to each patient for factors including age, gender, education, and first language. The patients shared cognitive impairments such as slower mental processing. "The thing they struggle with most is verbal reasoning," Menon said. He gave examples such as completing analogies: Laces are to shoes what buttons are to coats. The change was most often comparable to a person aging from 50 to 70, he said.

Patients who had needed ventilation during their illness or multiple organ support had the largest cognitive declines. Other research has indicated that the mental effects of a bout with COVID aren't fleeting, per Live Science. A study last year found that people dealing with long COVID have suffered from "brain fog," or trouble thinking, and headaches. Another found brain shrinkage in people who had contracted the coronavirus, which the authors say could be connected to cognitive difficulties. (Read more long COVID stories.)

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