Struggling with brain fog after a COVID-19 infection? You are not alone, experts say

COVID-19 is linked to an increased risk of developing brain fog and dementia after infection, according to a recent medical study.

More than 596 million cases of COVID-19 have been recorded worldwide – including nearly 10 million in Australia – and many long-term impacts remain to be seen.

However, the recent study sheds light on the risk of neurological disorders after an infection.

Here’s what we know about brain fog and how COVID-19 affects your brain.

Is brain fog a symptom of long COVID?

Yes, some people develop neurological symptoms after being infected.

Although brain fog is not a medical term, it is generally used for certain symptoms that can affect your ability to think.

Respiratory physician Anthony Byrne says brain fog is one of the most common symptoms he has seen– and he works in Australia’s first long-running COVID clinic, at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney.

“This is a serious issue. Many patients come to us because they are unable to carry out their usual activities, including work and studies, due to their post-COVID neurological effects,” he says.

“But there is a spectrum – some are mild and their change in cognition is barely noticeable while others are unable to work at all.”

Australian Department of Health also notes that one of the most common neurological symptoms is “difficulty concentrating…which is often called brain fog, where people are simply unable to think clearly.”

How does COVID-19 affect the brain?

Two years after having COVID-19, diagnoses of brain fog, dementia and epilepsy are more common than after other respiratory infections, according to the recent Oxford University study.

But anxiety and depression are no longer likely in adults or children two years later, the research published in the Lancet Psychiatry found.

Dr Anthony Byrne works at Australia’s first long-running COVID clinic and says brain fog is one of the most common symptoms.(ABC News: Jason Om)

Experts say more research is needed to understand how and why this happens after COVID-19 infection, and what can be done to prevent or treat these disorders when they do occur.

The study looked at the risks of 14 different disorders in 1.28 million patients over a two-year period from patients in the United States and several countries, including Australia.

Dr Byrne says the study is consistent with what he is seeing among his patients in Sydney.

“The good news is that the study shows that children aren’t as badly affected overall and tend to recover over a limited amount of time,” he says.

In June, researchers at La Trobe University discovered “toxic protein clumps”, or amyloid assemblies, appearing in the brain after a Covid-19 infection appeared to be similar to those found in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

They said it may be responsible for some of the neurological symptoms of long COVID, or what many call “brain fog.”

The authors of the study, published in Nature Communications, cautioned that the implications of the changes were unclear and did not necessarily suggest lasting damage.

Do variants carry more risk?

Yes, researchers have found more neurological and psychiatric disorders were observed during the Delta variant wave than with the previous Alpha variant.

The Omicron wave was linked to similar neurological and psychiatric risks as Delta.

However, the Oxford University study notes that it has several limitations.

It is not known how severe or long-lasting these disorders are. It is also not known when they started, as the problems may be present for some time before a diagnosis is made. Additionally, unrecorded cases of COVID-19 and unrecorded vaccinations introduce some uncertainty into the results.

What should you do if you experience brain fog related to COVID-19?

Visit your doctor and let them know about any persistent symptoms you’re experiencing, says Andrew Budson, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

“This includes your brain fog and other neurological symptoms, such as weakness, numbness, tingling, loss of smell or taste, as well as problems such as shortness of breath, palpitations and abnormal urine or stools.”

As for brain fog, what could help?

To help eliminate brain fog as best as possible, Dr. Budson recommends the following to boost thinking and memory:

  • Exercise. You may need to start slowly, maybe just two to three minutes a few times a day. Although there is no set “dose” of exercise to improve brain health, 30 minutes a day, five days a week is generally recommended.
  • Eat Mediterranean-style meals. A healthy diet that includes olive oil, fruits and vegetables, nuts and beans, and whole grains has been proven to improve thinking, memory, and brain health.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs. Give your brain the best chance to heal by avoiding substances that can negatively affect it.
  • Sleep well. Sleep is a time when the brain and body can eliminate toxins and work on healing. Give your body the sleep it needs.
  • Participate in social activities. We are social animals. Not only are social activities good for our mood, but they also help our thinking and memory.
  • Pursue other beneficial activities, including engaging in new and cognitively challenging activities, listening to music, practicing mindfulness, and maintaining a positive mental attitude.

It should be noted that this is general advice. As of now, Dr. Byrne says there are no specific, proven, doctor-prescribed therapies to treat “brain fog.” So keep in mind:

  • Take it easy and give yourself time to recover. Everyone’s journey is different. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t meet your recovery expectations.
  • See your GP and consider seeing a specialist if there are any ‘red flag’ symptoms which could be new onset dementia or epilepsy.
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Mutations in the COVID-19 virus continue to pose a risk.

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