Healthy Life

How COVID-19 affects brain health

August 3, 2021

Growing evidence shows that COVID-19 can directly and indirectly harm brain health. 

A special report by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) explained that studies have shown that infection with the virus can cause neurological symptoms in 82% of cases. 

Such symptoms include delirium, brain inflammation, stroke, nerve damage and blood vessel injury. Common neurological COVID-19 symptoms seen in a lot of cases include headaches, fatigue and ‘brain fog’ – difficulty thinking or concentrating.

Researchers from the National Institute of Health are also investigating evidence which suggests that the virus directly infects the central nervous system, crosses the blood-brain barrier and invades cells in the brain.

The report states that indirect effects of COVID-19 on brain health include the impacts of mental health, from isolation, stress and uncertainty. 

It also shares research that people with a genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease, and those living with dementia or cognitive decline appear to be at increased risk of severe COVID-19 disease.

GCBH chair and professional of neurology at John Hopkins University, Dr. Marilyn Albert, said: “People know that COVID-19 is a disease that affects the lungs, but they are not as aware that it can affect the brain as well. 

“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, and emphasize that there are ways to address the health of their brain during the pandemic, and to address some of the negative effects of the isolation that many people are experiencing.”

More research into how COVID-19 affects the brain is taking place, but there are steps that can be taken to maintain brain health now. 

How to protect your brain health during the COVID-19 pandemic

There are ten recommendations that GCBH make for older adults to protect their brain health during the pandemic:

  1. Consider getting the vaccine

Adults over the age of 65 are at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19, and the most effective way to reduce this risk is to get vaccinated against the disease. 

  1. Stay physically active

Most people have been living more sedentary lifestyles due to the pandemic, but physical activity is key for keeping the brain healthy. Experts recommend doing 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week with two sessions of strength training. 

  1. Eat a balanced diet

A balanced diet is a key pillar of maintaining good brain health. Your diet should include a wide variety of healthy fats, vitamins and polyphenols from fresh vegetables, fruit, fish and nuts. A Mediterranean diet in particular has been shown to reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

  1. Keep socially connected

Studies show that socially engaged older people tend to have a higher level of cognitive function. Reducing isolation is important as we age, because it can increase the risk of premature death from all causes.  

  1. Get frequent, good quality sleep

It’s important to get between seven and eight uninterrupted hours of sleep every night. Sleep helps reduce emotional stress and helps the body mount a more effective immune response.

  1. Stimulate your brain

Keeping the mind active is vital to reduce the risk of cognitive decline as we age. Recommended activities to do this include reading and puzzles. 

  1. Don’t put off medical appointments

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused people to avoid making or going to medical appointments. To keep your brain and physical health in check, it’s crucial to make sure you don’t miss any. 

  1. Look after your mental health

Poor long term mental health can have negative effects on brain health, and the impact of stress and anxiety are well known. The pandemic has made keeping good mental health more challenging, so it’s important to pay attention to looking after it. 

  1. Monitor changes in brain health

Especially during the pandemic, it’s essential to monitor how you’re feeling and watch out for any changes to your neurological state. For example, headaches, confusion, dizziness and loss of taste or smell.

  1. Pay attention to signs of sudden confusion

Delirium is a sudden state of confusion which is commonly seen in older patients infected with COVID-19. Sometimes it’s the only symptom, so it’s crucial to pay attention to any changes in your cognition. 

For more information on each of these, and to find out more about how you can improve your brain health, read our guides on sleep, nutrition, exercise and keeping an active mind.