COVID-19’s Impact on the Brain & How to Combat It’s Effects
While we are still learning about the effects of the novel coronavirus, we can already tell that this pandemic certainly is not good for the brain — especially among hospitalized patients, but also for those with milder symptoms, and even those who have not been infected.
Recent data suggests that perhaps a third of those hospitalized are at risk for abnormal blood clotting, which can lead to strokes and heart failure. We also know that the high fevers and inflammation that can result from viral infection can lead to cognitive symptoms similar to those from concussive injuries. All who have spent time in an intensive care unit are at risk for post-ICU cognitive deficits, which studies show can be persistent.
A look at common symptoms of COVID-19 also causes a neuroscientist to worry. Even among those never hospitalized, they include dizziness; loss of taste/smell; impaired consciousness (feeling “out of it”); difficulty in verbal expression; declines in heart and respiratory function; and low blood oxygen over extended periods. None of that is good for the brain.
Even the uninfected who are following health guidelines (staying at home, maintaining social distance), face cognitive issues. Our brains are healthiest when stimulated. If you are socializing less and staying at home, it’s likely you encounter less cognitive stimulation each day. When your brain has less need to be fast and accurate, its processing slows and gets fuzzier over time. This already is a risk associated with cognitive aging.
The good news is that we can do a few simple things to help our brains, even if staying at home.
Learn New Skills. This is a great time to start a new hobby, learn a new skill, or maybe dust off that guitar, paint set, or language tapes that have sat unattended for years. Doing new things that demand attention and are progressively challenging flood your brain with beneficial chemicals and fine tunes its operations. Extra tip: the less familiar you are with the activity, the better.
Socialize in New Ways. After a while under lockdown, a sense of isolation sets in. While you can’t go to physical gatherings, this is a great time to re-connect with friends by video or even by phone. Extra tip: When you talk about how things are in your location try to be very descriptive and when others talk try to visualize what they are talking about. Studies show visualization activates many of the same brain circuits as actually being there.
Exercise Your Brain.I’ve spent the past decade with a global team of scientists making the brain exercises in BrainHQ. They’ve been shown effective in more than 100 studies, including those showing gains in standard measures of cognitive ability (e.g., attention, brain speed, memory) as well as in real-world activities (e.g., balance, driving, living independently). Several studies also show they improve mood — addressing depressive symptoms associated with social isolation. Extra tip: You can access them for free through many public libraries and Medicare Advantage plans or you can try them for free at brainhq.com.