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A new study investigates the cognitive symptoms of long COVID. Alita/Stocksy,Photo, Stocksy
  • Among the many lingering effects that health experts attribute to long COVID are problems with concentration and memory.
  • More than three-quarters of people with long COVID reported such issues in a new study.
  • Many individuals with these issues say that doctors do not take them seriously.

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors were mainly concerned with the life threatening, acute stage of the disease. This had to be the priority, as healthcare systems around the world struggled to cope with the demand and to understand how to treat people with the condition.

As time goes on, however, there is more and more focus on the lingering effects of COVID-19, which experts refer to as long COVID.

For instance, there are reports of concentration and memory issues. A new study from the Universities of Cambridge and Exeter in the United Kingdom investigates just how common such problems are.

According to the study, 78% of people who reported they had long COVID symptoms during the study stated they experienced difficulties with concentration.

A previous study has shown 49.6% of those with long COVID reported they had difficulty getting medical professionals to take their symptoms seriously.

Prof. Adam Hampshire, from the Department of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London, told Medical News Today that many “feel that they are not being taken seriously or are being gaslighted.” Prof. Hampshire was not involved in the present study.

Dr. Muzaffer Kaser, study co-author and researcher, suggested to MNT a possible reason for this skepticism:

“We are still in the process of understanding the clinical patterns of long COVID, so it is important to acknowledge there are many unknowns.”

Senior study author Dr. Lucy G. Cheke told MNT, “There is a danger that now that vaccination has reduced short-term deaths, that governments are now acting like COVID is ‘over,’ but ‘living with COVID’ does not mean pretending it isn’t still causing major long-term problems.”

The study appears in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

From October 2020 to March 2021, the researchers recruited a cohort of adults who self-reported having long COVID symptoms.

After separating out those who were not likely to have had COVID-19 at all, the researchers arrived at a final group of 181 COVID-19 survivors and a control group of 185 individuals without a SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Among the participants with the disease, there was an almost even split between those who had recovered completely (42 people), those who still had mild symptoms (53 people), and those who continued to have severe COVID-19 symptoms (66 people).

The participants with long COVID reported their current cognitive issues:

  • 78% reported difficulty concentrating.
  • 69% reported brain fog.
  • 67.5% reported forgetfulness.
  • 59.5% reported difficulty recalling a desired word.
  • 43.7% reported typing or saying an unintended word.

As part of a second, related study, the researchers reported that severity of impairment increased with the severity of reported symptoms.

Dr. Cheke explained that these symptoms are not minor inconveniences,

“Our data support larger epidemiological studies that show that cognitive symptoms are very common in long COVID, and go further to show that these symptoms are reflected in objective, measurable reductions in memory capacity.”

“These sorts of issues make a big difference to people’s lives,” she continued, “not just reducing quality of life, but also the ability to do their jobs and care for their families.”

The study cites previous research, in which 86% of the participants said that cognitive problems made them feel unable to work.

Only 27% of the participants who had not recovered said they were able to work as many hours as they did before developing COVID-19.

“The main finding from this first analysis,” the study’s authors write, “is that severity of initial illness is a significant predictor of the presence and severity of ongoing symptoms and that some symptoms during the initial illness — particularly limb weakness — may be more common in those that have more severe ongoing symptoms.”

In addition, the study found that cognitive issues were more likely when people experienced “neurological/psychiatric and fatigue/mixed symptoms” during the acute phase of the disease and when ongoing illness included “neurological, gastrointestinal, and cardiopulmonary/fatigue symptoms.”

An estimated 10% of people who get COVID-19 experience long COVID afterward, although the real figure may be higher.

What separates those who develop it from those who do not remains largely unclear.

Jacqueline Helcer Becker, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist and researcher in the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, who was not involved in the study, told MNT:

“The long-term health effects of COVID-19 are significant for a substantial proportion of the population. The only way to prevent long COVID is to avoid SARS-CoV-2 infection entirely, as we don’t yet know if individuals with breakthrough infections (COVID after vaccination) are also at risk [of] long COVID, though we do suspect their risk is lower than [the risk of] those who are unvaccinated.”

“Something that we do not know yet,” said Prof. Hampshire, “is how long it takes people to recover, how fully people with varying degrees of acute illness recover, or what can be done to help augment their recovery.”

For an individual, Dr. Becker suggested a stratagem to ensure healthcare professionals take them seriously,

“When seeking help from a physician for long COVID neurological symptoms, a patient should communicate that what they are experiencing reflects a change from how they were before COVID.”