Survivors of COVID-19 with long-term memory problems are at greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease

Scientists looking at patients with long-term COVID-19 symptoms are concerned that they could develop Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

Researchers at UT Health San Antonio have been monitoring Covid patients with long-term neurological symptoms for the past year and are presenting their findings this week at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference.

The team found that younger patients are likely to suffer from Covid-induced anxiety and depression, while patients in their 60s and 70s have symptoms similar to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Even if a small number of Covid patients are affected by long-term neurological problems, it could be devastating to the US health care system.

Covid patients with long-term neurological symptoms are at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life, new research suggests. Pictured: An employee of a retirement home in France speaks with a resident in April 2020

dr.  de Erausquin, principal investigator of the study, describes his findings in a lecture in April 2021

dr. de Erausquin, principal investigator of the study, describes his findings in a lecture in April 2021

While most people infected with the coronavirus have mild or no symptoms, a small number suffer for months – and may be affected for years after they recover.

Common symptoms in these lung hauler patients include brain fog, memory problems, and fatigue, along with others neurological problems.

According to one study, up to a third of Covid patients show these symptoms – even after they appear to have recovered from the virus.

Scientists are now concerned that these long-term neurological symptoms could lead to worse conditions later in life.

New research from the University of Texas (UT) Health Science Center in San Antonio indicates that long-term Covid patients with neurological problems are at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers Covid patients with these symptoms followed for about a year, with the study covering more than 50 centers in 30 countries.

This week, the researchers are presenting preliminary findings at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, which began Monday in Denver, Colorado.

For Cassandra Hernandez, a nurse at a hospital in San Antonio, Texas, who matches the study’s patient profile, the first sign of Covid was a loss of taste and smell.

“I went home after a 12-hour shift and sat down to have a pint of ice cream with my husband and I couldn’t taste it,” she said. NPR.

After two weeks in the hospital and months at home handicapped by fatigue, memory problems and other symptoms, Hernandez has come a long way to recovery.

“I would literally fall asleep if I was having a conversation or doing something that involved my brain,” she said.

Hernandez may now be at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, according to research from the UT Health San Antonio group.

Covid patients in their 60s and 70s had symptoms similar to early-onset Alzheimer's, the researchers found.  Pictured: Nurses measure the blood pressure of a nursing home patient in Belgium, July 2020

Covid patients in their 60s and 70s had symptoms similar to early-onset Alzheimer’s, the researchers found. Pictured: Nurses measure the blood pressure of a nursing home patient in Belgium, July 2020

The researchers found that loss of smell may be an early indicator of this risk, as the parts of the brain involved in smell are also linked to memory, thinking, planning and mood.

“Persistent lack of smell, it is associated with brain changes not only in the olfactory bulb, but also in those places that are somehow linked to the sense of smell,” Dr. Gabriel de Erausquin, a professor of neurology at UT Health San Antonio and lead author of the study, told NPR.

Younger patients — such as those in their thirties — are more likely to develop anxiety and depression, the researchers found.

Older patients, on the other hand, likely developed symptoms similar to early Alzheimer’s. And these symptoms can last for months.

“In older people, people over 60, forgetfulness is the main manifestation,” de Erausquin said.

“These people tend to forget where they put things, they tend to forget names, they tend to forget phone numbers. They also have difficulty with language; they begin to forget words.’

Such findings are consistent with results from brain scans showing that Covid infection can cause changes similar to those seen in Alzheimer’s patients.

Genetic studies have also shown overlap between the genes that increase severe Covid risk – and the genes that increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.

The Erausquin said these patients “look really bad now,” but it’s hard to predict how their symptoms will worsen in the coming years.

For younger patients in particular, it could be decades before the full effects of Covid are revealed.

Even if the number of patients with such long-lasting, debilitating symptoms is small compared to the millions of Americans infected with Covid, the impact on the national health care system could be huge.

More than six million Americans already live with Alzheimer’s disease.

The age-related brain disease is a leading cause of death for seniors, and treatments are limited — or very expensive, in the case of the controversial newly approved Aduhelm.

President Joe Biden recently announced that patients with long-term Covid symptoms are now eligible for disability benefits in the US

The decision could potentially add millions to the disability system, with some patients suffering from Covid effects for years to come.

Meanwhile, scientists are trying to better understand how Covid interacts with the brain, keeping an eye out for other viruses that can cause long-term neurological problems.

‘If one understands how the immune response to this virus accelerates’ [Alzheimer’s] disease, we can learn more about the impact of other viruses,” Dr. Sudha Seshadri, another Alzheimer’s researcher at UT Health San Antonio, told NPR.