A new Global Council on Brain Health report warns that, in addition to Covid-19’s widely known respiratory effects, the virus can also damage brain health. Experts note the need for more research and recommend 10 ways to protect brain health.
“While we know the risks for severe illness from Covid-19 increases with age, there is so much we still don’t know about the long-term effects of Covid-19 infection on our brains,” said Sarah Lenz Lock, AARP senior vp for policy and executive director of the GCBH. “Moving forward, 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 GCBH report explores both the direct and indirect ways Covid-19 can undermine brain health — from causing neurological symptoms to exacting a toll on people’s mental well-being, especially those living with dementia and their caregivers.
“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, GCBH chair and professor of neurology and director of the division on cognitive neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. “We want to emphasize that there are ways to address the health of their brain during the pandemic and address some of the negative effects of the isolation that many people are experiencing.”
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 coming to emergency rooms with Covid-19 had signs of delirium, but no other common Covid-19 symptoms.
The GCBH says 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 is 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 that people:
- Consider getting the vaccine as soon as you are able.
- 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.
- Take care of your mental health.
- Pay attention to signs of sudden confusion.
- Monitor changes in your brain health.
The pandemic has highlighted health disparities and long-standing inequalities that can affect brain health and mental well-being.
The GCBH report calls for governments to better support their citizens who are at increased risk of the direct and indirect harms of Covid-19, including older adults and racial and ethnic minorities.
To download a copy of “Covid-19 and Brain Health: The Global Council on Brain Health’s Recommendations on What to Do Now,” visit www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/global-council-on-brain-health/covid/. Previous reports from the GCBH on exercise, nutrition, sleep and other modifiable lifestyle factors that can help your brain at any age are available at www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/global-council-on-brain-health/resource-library/.