A new study reveals long COVID symptoms include memory and concentration issues

Seven out of ten patients reported difficulty concentrating.
Ameya Paleja

A recent study published by researchers at the University of Cambridge has found that seven out of ten patients affected with long COVID face memory and concentration problems that aren't getting much attention from clinicians as well. 

Loss of smell and taste, breathlessness, fever were defining symptoms of COVID when the disease first appeared on the global stage. The risk of a rapid decline in the health of an infected individual led to clinicians prioritizing those with severe symptoms. Individuals whose symptoms did not warrant hospitalization were asked to stay at home and recover. However, in either set of patients, there are many who continue to live with symptoms of COVID for months following the infection, a condition recognized as long COVID. 

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How long is "long COVID"?

Even the World Health Organization is unsure how long the condition can last. In a post last year, the health organization suggested that the condition could last from as little as three months to as many as nine months while stating that further studies were needed to understand the condition better. 

Amongst the symptoms of long COVID, the most common three are shortness of breath, cognitive dysfunction (brain fog), and fatigue.

However, this is far from an exhaustive list as more than 200 symptoms have been reported in patients. Other symptoms that have been reported are: 

  • chest pain,
  • anxiety or depression,
  • muscle aches,
  • fever,
  • loss of smell,
  • loss of taste

As seen in these listings, the impact of long COVID on mental wellbeing has received very little attention. So, the researchers at Cambridge University decided to probe into this and recruited 181 long COVID patients, and monitored their symptoms for a period of 18 months. 

The Cambridge study

The study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, found that

  • 78 percent reported difficulty concentrating,
  • 69 percent reported brain fog,
  • 68 percent reported forgetfulness,
  • 60 percent reported problems finding the right word in speech
  • 70 percent of patients in the study experienced difficulty concentrating and memory problems several months after COVID infection 
  • patients with long COVID performed worse on cognitive tests;
  • 75 percent of the study participants reported long periods of being unable to work.

The study also found that the severity of these symptoms was higher in individuals who faced severe headaches, dizziness, or fatigue soon after being infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus as compared to those who had milder symptoms. Additionally, those who continued to experience these symptoms fared poorly on cognitive tests. 

Interestingly, half of the study's participants found that medical professionals were not taking their complaints of loss of cognitive function seriously. 

"Long COVID has received very little attention politically or medically," said Dr. Lucy Cheke, an author of the paper and a researcher in the Department of Psychology at the university. "It urgently needs to be taken more seriously, and cognitive issues are an important part of this. When politicians talk about ‘Living with COVID’ – that is, unmitigated infection, this is something they ignore. The impact on the working population could be huge."  

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The Office of National Statistics in the U.K. estimates that up to 25 percent of those infected with COVID have some degree of chronic illness. The researchers warn that the society at large will face a 'long tail' of workforce illness due to Long COVID, and therefore it is important to be able to identify and treat issues associated with the conditions. 

Study Abstract: 
Since its first emergence in December 2019, coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), has evolved into a global pandemic. Whilst often considered a respiratory disease, a large proportion of COVID-19 patients report neurological symptoms, and there is accumulating evidence for neural damage in some individuals, with recent studies suggesting loss of gray matter in multiple regions, particularly in the left hemisphere. There are a number of mechanisms by which COVID-19 infection may lead to neurological symptoms and structural and functional changes in the brain, and it is reasonable to expect that many of these may translate into cognitive problems. Indeed, cognitive problems are one of the most commonly reported symptoms in those experiencing “Long COVID”—the chronic illness following COVID-19 infection that affects between 10 and 25% of patients. The COVID and Cognition Study is a part cross-sectional, part longitudinal, study documenting and aiming to understand the cognitive problems in Long COVID. In this first paper from the study, we document the characteristics of our sample of 181 individuals who had experienced COVID-19 infection, and 185 who had not. We explore which factors may be predictive of ongoing symptoms and their severity, as well as conducting an in-depth analysis of symptom profiles. Finally, we explore which factors predict the presence and severity of cognitive symptoms, both throughout the ongoing illness and at the time of testing. The main finding from this first analysis is that 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. Symptom profiles can be well described in terms of 5 or 6 factors, reflecting the variety of this highly heterogenous condition experienced by the individual. Specifically, we found that neurological/psychiatric and fatigue/mixed symptoms during the initial illness, and that neurological, gastrointestinal, and cardiopulmonary/fatigue symptoms during the ongoing illness, predicted experience of cognitive symptoms.

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