Jeannie Volpe was unable to continue running sexual assault support groups in Anniston, Alabama, for weeks after contracting COVID-19 in November 2020 because she kept forgetting the specifics that survivors had shared with her. The 47-year-old says, “People were telling me they were having to replay their horrific memories, which isn’t fair to anyone.”
Volpe has been identified as having long-COVID autonomic dysfunction, which is accompanied by excruciating muscle pain, sadness, anxiety, and a decline in cognitive function. Some of her symptoms are more frequently referred to as brain fog, and they are among the most prevalent issues that people who experience long-term problems following a COVID-19 episode report.
The potential significance of this in the years to come, according to many experts and medical professionals, has only just begun to be explored.
In Cleveland, Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine research professor Pamela Davis, MD, PhD, says, “I’m really concerned that we have an epidemic of neurologic dysfunction coming down the pike.”
Volpe’s executive function, which refers to the mental operations that allow people to focus attention, store information, and multitask, has deteriorated so much in the two years that she has lived with extended COVID that she had to relearn how to drive. Speech therapy has been proposed as a way to assist Volpe retrain her mouth to form words by one of the numerous experts evaluating her. She continues in a lethargic voice that betrays her state, “I can see the words I want to say in my mind, but I can’t make them come out of my mouth.
She finds it challenging to take care of herself because of all those symptoms. Volpe claims she has looked into assisted suicide in the states that permit it but has eventually decided she wants to live because she is unemployed and without health insurance.
“People tell you that you should be grateful that you survived it, and you should. However, you shouldn’t expect someone to not grieve after losing their independence, their work, or their finances.
The results of studies looking at how COVID-19 affects the brain confirm what persons with lengthy COVID have been experiencing. Their experiences are not fictitious; rather, they are congruent with neurological illnesses, such as myalgic encephalomyelitis, often known as chronic fatigue syndrome, or ME/CFS, which have much greater cultural resonance than the often disparaging term “brain fog.”
Studies have revealed a connection between COVID-19 and ailments like strokes, seizures, and abnormalities of the mood, memory, and movement.
Even though there are still many unanswered issues about how COVID-19 affects the brain and what its long-term ramifications are, there is enough evidence to suggest that until more information is available, people should strive to avoid getting infected and reinfecting themselves.
According to Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, a clinical epidemiologist and longtime COVID researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, it is believed that COVID-19 has caused more than 40 million new cases of neurological diseases worldwide. Researchers found that people who have had COVID-19 are more likely to develop a wide range of 44 neurological conditions after the first year of infection, regardless of age, gender, race, or lifestyle, in their most recent analysis of 14 million medical records from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the nation’s largest integrated health care system.
He mentioned that some of the ailments, such headaches and a slight loss of memory and mental clarity, might become better and disappear with time. However, some of the ones that surfaced, including a stroke, an encephalitis (brain inflammation), or Guillain-Barre syndrome (a rare condition in which the body’s immune system assaults the nerves), frequently result in long-term harm. According to Al-team, Aly’s those with COVID-19 were 7% more likely to have neurological disorders than people who had never had the infection.
The probability of post-COVID thinking disorders was also found to be higher among adults in their 30s, 40s, and 50s compared to control groups, a population who are typically very unlikely to experience these issues. The hazards were less obvious for people over 60 because such mental disorders are more common at that age.
The results of a different study conducted on the veterans’ system last year revealed that COVID-19 survivors had a 46% higher chance of thinking suicide after a year.
Al-Aly said, “We need to be paying attention to this.” The extent of what we’ve seen is actually just the tip of the iceberg. He is concerned about the economic and societal repercussions of millions of individuals, notably young people, being denied employment and educational opportunities while living with long-term disability. What will be left behind for everyone, he predicts, is the “aftermath of terrible catastrophe in some people’s life.”
A specialist extended COVID clinic has been conducted by Igor Koralnik, MD, chief of neuro-infectious disease and worldwide neurology at Northwestern University in Chicago. In March 2021, his team issued a paper describing the findings from their initial 100 patients. “Around half of the study’s participants missed at least 10 days of work. In a podcast that was published on the Northwestern website, Koralnik stated that this would have a long-lasting effect on the workforce. “We have seen that patients not only experience symptoms but also a lower quality of life.”
The possibility of neurological disorders like dementia, which the virus has been found to accelerate, is a major concern for elderly individuals and the people who care for them. For persons 65 and older, Alzheimer’s disease is already the seventh most common cause of death.
The risk of Alzheimer’s increased by 50% to 80% in the year following COVID-19, according to a new study by Davis and her team at Case Western University including more than 6 million adults over the age of 65. Women over 85 had an unusually high risk of developing the condition.
Although there are now no effective cures for Alzheimer’s, the cost of long-term care and hospice services for people with dementia is expected to reach $300 billion worldwide in 2020. Even those fees are not taken into account for families.
“Having someone with Alzheimer’s being cared for by a family member can have catastrophic effects on everyone,” she claims. “The carers don’t always handle that well,”
Davis’s mother cared for her father, who had Alzheimer’s when he was 86 years old, until she had a stroke one morning while preparing breakfast. Davis blames the burden of providing care for the stroke. Davis was forced to look for accommodation where both of her parents could receive care as a result.
Looking at the bigger picture, Davis is convinced that the COVID-19 sickness itself, as well as the widespread isolation, loneliness, and bereavement experienced during the epidemic, will continue to have a significant influence on psychiatric diagnoses. As a result of untreated mental health issues, this could then precipitate a surge of new substance usage.
However, not all brain researchers are assuming the worst; there is still much that has to be studied before raising the alarm. A neurologist and researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, Joanna Hellmuth, MD, issues a warning against making generalisations about the early results, such as that COVID-19 leads to neurodegeneration or irreparable brain injury.
She notes that while though University of Oxford researchers’ before-and-after brain scans demonstrate structural modifications to the brain following infection, they didn’t really examine the participants’ clinical symptoms, making it premature to draw conclusions regarding related cognitive issues.
Although it’s a crucial component of the jigsaw, Hellmuth says, “we don’t know how that goes together with anything else.” Some of my patients improve. Since the pandemic began, I haven’t seen a single person get worse, so I have hope.