A serious bout of COVID-19 can prompt a serious loss of brain power, new research warns, triggering a drop in IQ that's equivalent to aging from 50 to 70 in a matter of months.
"Previous research has indicated that people who have recovered from COVID-19 may suffer from lasting problems in terms of their ability to concentrate and problem solve," noted study author Adam Hampshire. He's an associate member with the U.K. Dementia Research Institute Care Research and Technology Centre, in London.
"What we were trying to find out was how pronounced these [thinking] difficulties were in patients who had been more severely ill, which aspects of [thinking] were most affected, whether there was any sign of recovery over time, and what the underlying cause might be," Hampshire added.
Patients were often very forgetful, Hampshire stressed, struggling with the sort of "brain fog" that would often make it difficult to find the words to express themselves.
All told, the study team found the diminished post-COVID brain capacity would likely translate into a 10-point drop in IQ.
"The cause remains to be determined," he said. "But our study indicates that it is more likely to be something that happens during the initial illness as opposed to mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, after recovery. That is, the patients also show signs of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress, but these appear to be separate to the [thinking] problems."
Dr. Colin Franz, a physician-scientist with the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, said the findings dovetail with his own experience with COVID-19 survivors.
"As a physician who regularly sees people post-COVID, I am not surprised that there are persistent mental health issues like memory or concentration in the months after hospitalization," he said. "This is one of the more common concerns our 'long-COVID' patients bring to us."
The precise reason may vary from patient to patient, added Franz, who was not involved in the study.
"For example, in one person it could be connected to an issue with the very small blood vessels in the brain," he noted. "But in another one, they have persistent breathing issues that disturb sleep and increase fatigue that may play into poor test performance."
Franz's advice for those with persistent brain health issues post-COVID "is to seek help from a well-coordinated, and comprehensive post-COVID clinic in your area," whether that be an outpatient therapy program or a personal doctor.