Brain fog, being unable to focus, memory issues—the same cognitive changes associated with an aging brain—are plaguing many people who experienced severe COVID-19 regardless of their age and long after their active infection is gone.

Past research from Imperial College London showed that people who recover from severe COVID have a 10-year drop, on average, in cognitive performance, which mimics accelerated brain aging. Other studies suggest that COVID causes changes in the brain’s frontal cortex, which is critical for cognitive function.

To find out why, Harvard researchers led by neuroscientist Maria ­Mavrikaki, PhD, analyzed the brains of 22 people with severe COVID. These brain samples were compared to those from two control groups—22 similar people who died with no known history of COVID and had no psychiatric or neurological disease…and uninfected people who had been in the ICU or on a ventilator for other reasons, similar to people hospitalized with severe COVID.

What researchers found: The brains of people who died with severe COVID closely resembled those of uninfected people 71 years old or older. Equally striking: The Sars-COV-2 virus was not detected in the brains of severe-COVID patients. Instead, genes associated with inflammation and stress were more active in those brains than in the controls, and genes linked to cognition and the formation of connections between brain cells were less active. This suggests that the aging and cognitive decline changes aren’t caused by COVID infiltrating the brain but rather by inflammation.

What to do if you’ve had severe COVID and experience brain fog…

Get a referral to a neurologist from your health-care provider.

Avoid lifestyle factors that increase risk for cognitive decline. Maintain a healthy weight, be more active, don’t smoke and cut back on alcohol. Also, maintain frequent social contact.


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