PMC co-director Jason Karlawish, MD, coauthored the Global Council on Brain Health’s (GCBH) recent report COVID-19 and Brain Health: The Global Council on Brain Health’s Recommendations on What to Do Now.
Dr. Karlawish is a member of the GCBH and serves on its Governance Committee. The GCBH is an AARP collaborative of scientists, health professionals, scholars, and policy experts from around the world who are working in areas of brain health related to human cognition and who strive to provide the best and most recent scientific insights into brain health to help people lead their best lives.
In their special report, Dr. Karlawish and his fellow GCBH members warn that, in addition to COVID-19’s widely known respiratory effects, the virus can also damage brain health. The report offers ten suggestions to maintain brain health during the pandemic, as well.
“While we know the risks for severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age, there is so much we still don’t know about the long term effects of COVID-19 infection on our brains,” said Sarah Lenz Lock, AARP Senior Vice President for Policy and Executive Director of the GCBH. “Moving forward, it is vitally important to invest in research that examines the direct and indirect impacts of COVID on brain health and mental wellbeing.”
The GCBH report explores both the direct and indirect ways COVID-19 may undermine brain health, from causing neurological symptoms to exacting a toll on people’s mental wellbeing, especially those living with dementia and their caregivers.
“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,” said Dr. Marilyn Albert, GCBH chair, and professor of neurology and director of the division on cognitive neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. “We want to 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,”
The report also reviews specific neurological symptoms, which can include delirium, a sudden change in thinking and behavior. One study found that 37% of older adults coming to emergency rooms with COVID-19 had signs of delirium, but no other common COVID-19 symptoms.
The GCBH says the pandemic has taken a widespread toll on mental wellbeing, which ultimately impacts brain health. Heightened health risks, uncertainty, reduced social engagement, new routines and economic hardship all loom large during this pandemic and can trigger or amplify feelings of stress.
The report further notes a significant and negative impact on people living with dementia. In the United States, deaths attributed to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia rose more than 20% above normal during the summer of 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is still unknown whether the virus caused the additional deaths or whether dementia accounted for an increase in COVID-19 infections.
Despite the challenges of living through a pandemic, there are evidence-based steps anyone can take to help protect brain health. The GCBH recommends that people:
- Consider getting the vaccine as soon as you are able
- Stay physically active
- Maintain a balanced diet
- Stay socially connected
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule
- Stimulate your brain
- Don’t put off necessary medical appointments
- Take care of your mental health
- Pay attention to signs of sudden confusion, and
- Monitor changes in your brain health.
The pandemic has highlighted health disparities and long-standing inequalities that can affect brain health and mental wellbeing. The GCBH report calls for governments to better support their citizens who are at increased risk of the direct and indirect harms of COVID-19, including older adults and racial and ethnic minorities.
Click here to download a copy of “Covid-19 and Brain Health: The Global Council on Brain Health’s Recommendations on What to Do Now.” Previous reports from the GCBH on exercise, nutrition, sleep and other modifiable lifestyle factors that can help your brain at any age are available here.