Lasting brain effects of COVID-19 equate to decades of aging

Danilo Vitorovic, MD, a neurologist at Loma Linda University Health, supports claims that severe COVID-19 can age the brain for decades.

Brain fog, anxiety and sleep disturbances are some long-term COVID-19 symptoms, but recent studies have shown that severe COVID-19 can cause permanent cognitive and mental health problems. Vitorovic says it’s important to understand that the virus isn’t in the brain, but that the brain is instead reaping the consequences of severe COVID-19-associated inflammation of the entire body.

It’s pretty devastating to see these effects on the younger population.

Danilo Vitorovic, MD

The brain’s aging process is driven at the cellular level by molecular changes that slowly accumulate with age. The changes are associated with increased inflammation, a tendency for neurons to die, and a decreased ability to form new connections between neurons in the brain. Although cells have mechanisms to repair or remove damage, they are not 100% efficient and their efficiency decreases with age. The deleterious effects of severe COVID-19 infection can induce the same molecular features of the natural aging process in the frontal cortex and cognitive function.

Studies show that in patients 65 and younger, brain changes can be seen in much older individuals than in others their age who did not suffer from severe COVID-19 infection.

“It’s pretty devastating to see these effects on the younger population. The aging process of the brain has to be adapted to age,” says Vitorovic. “Now some young people have their whole lives ahead of them, and we still don’t know how much recovery these people will have in the long run.”

He says aging makes it harder to remember, think, and process information. Long-term solutions are still being studied, but Vitorovic points to other inflammatory diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, and their treatments as a guide.

“Gut health has a relationship with brain health,” he says. “Optimizing the health of the gut microbiome could be helpful in any brain-related process associated with inflammation.”

Lifestyle changes to restore gut health and potentially affect inflammation in the brain include exercising, eating a healthy diet, resting your body, and not smoking or drinking alcohol.

If you feel you may be suffering from COVID for a long time, make an appointment with your primary care physician and discuss your concerns.

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