Being hospitalized with Covid ages your brain by 20 YEARS — and shaves off 10 IQ points, study finds

Being hospitalized with Covid can age your brain by two decades, a government-funded study warned today.

Experts at Cambridge University say the effect is equivalent to losing about 10 IQ points.

Dozens of studies have shown that Covid damages brain function, but the scientists claim this is the first of its kind to rigorously assess the impact.

A new study has found that survivors of severe Covid infection performed worse on cognitive tests than members of the public six months after recovery. The left graph shows how Covid survivor scored on ‘accuracy’ in a cognitive test, where a negative score was worse than the general public. The graph on the right shows the scores of the Covid survivors in terms of time it took, with a positive score indicating that it took them longer than the average person to complete the test

Scientists found that this Covid-related decline in cognitive function most closely resembles that seen in healthy people between the ages of 50 and 70. These graphs show the cognitive decline scores for various conditions with the Covid patients on the far left, age-related decline in the middle, and dementia on the far right.  The red bars indicate how inaccurate the test scores were relative to the mean and the blue bars indicate the time it took participants to answer questions

Scientists found that this Covid-related decline in cognitive function most closely resembles that seen in healthy people between the ages of 50 and 70. These graphs show the cognitive decline scores for various conditions with the Covid patients on the far left, age-related decline in the middle, and dementia on the far right. The red bars indicate how inaccurate the test scores were relative to the mean and the blue bars indicate the time it took participants to answer questions

What is Long Covid and what does the NHS recommend for it?

According to the Office of National Statistics, as of January 2, an estimated 1.33 million people in the UK had Covid for a long time, according to the Office of National Statistics.

Long Covid is an informal term used to describe persistent symptoms after a Covid infection that last longer than 12 weeks.

A dizzying array of symptoms has been attributed to long-term Covid, including:

  • extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain or tightness
  • problems with memory and concentration (‘brain fog’)
  • trouble sleeping (insomnia)
  • palpitations
  • dizziness
  • pins and needles
  • joint pain
  • depression and anxiety
  • tinnitus, earache
  • nausea, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, loss of appetite
  • fever, cough, headache, sore throat, changes in sense of smell or taste
  • skin rash

Researchers tested the cognitive skills of 46 patients with an average age of 51 who were hospitalized with the virus in 2020. A third was connected to fans.

They underwent a battery of memory, attention and reasoning tests six months after their illness.

These test results were then compared with the scores of 66,000 members of the general public.

About 460 were selected for direct comparison based on patient demographics.

The results showed that, on average, the Covid survivors were less accurate and had slower response times than the public.

Covid survivors scored particularly poorly on tasks where they had to find appropriate words for a problem, called “verbal analogies” in the test.

This, the authors said, was a frequently reported problem among those experiencing “brain fog” after recovering from Covid.

The results also showed that patients requiring mechanical ventilation scored the worst in the tests, indicating that disease severity is a driving factor in the cognitive decline implicated in long-term Covid.

The study, which also involved researchers from Imperial College London, said cognitive impairment in Covid survivors was similar to that normally seen in people aged 50 to 70.

Although the patients showed some “gradual” cognitive improvement 10 months after their illness, the authors said some may never fully recover their previous intelligence.

They also warned that millions of people suffering from a milder version of Covid could also be affected, albeit to a lesser extent.

Neuroscientist Professor David Menon, author of the study, said some patients had shown improvement over time, but it was slow and some may never regain their previous cognitive abilities.

“We followed some patients for up to ten months after their acute infection, so we could see a very slow improvement,” he said.

“While this was not statistically significant, at least things are moving in the right direction, but it’s very possible that some of these individuals will never fully recover.”

Fellow researcher Professor Adam Hampshire said a large number of Britons could be affected by this Covid-induced premature brain aging.

He added: ‘Around 40,000 people have been in intensive care with Covid in England alone and many more will have been very ill but not hospitalized.

This means that there are a large number of people who still have problems with cognition many months later.

“We urgently need to see what can be done to help these people.”

A report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated that 1.33 million adults had symptoms of long-term Covid on Jan. 2.  The chart above shows the change in the prevalence of long-term Covid during the pandemic, but gives the percentage in thousands

A report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated that 1.33 million adults had symptoms of long-term Covid on Jan. 2. The chart above shows the change in the prevalence of long-term Covid during the pandemic, but gives the percentage in thousands

Echoing previous studies, the scientists said this premature aging could be due to the virus reducing oxygen to the brain, or inflammation of brain tissue that occurs when the body tries to fight off Covid.

This study was funded in part by the National Institute for Health Research, a body that directs government-funded health research at the Department of Health.

Published in eClinicalMedicine, it’s the latest warning about the long-term health problems of Covid.

Previous research has attributed a host of long-term problems to Covid, from mental health problems, persistent fatigue to a loss of libido.

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