For 18 months, we’ve been hearing about COVID-19 symptoms impacting the brain. In fact, research has shown that 1 in every 3 people that gets the virus has some sort of mental health or neurological disorder after.
Now, new research is unveiling a troubling connection between Alzheimer's, the progressive disease that destroys a person’s memory and mental functions, and COVID-19.
"We're actually seeing some changes in the underlying biology that's associated with Alzheimer’s," said Dr. Heather Snyder, vice president of Medical & Scientific Relations for the Alzheimer’s Association.
Dr. Snyder says researchers with an international consortium have found similar impacts on the brain that Alzheimer’s leaves behind--like brain inflammation--in some COVID-19 patients that leads to lasting cognitive impairment.
Simply put: what COVID has done in some patients’ brains is the same thing Alzheimer’s does. These symptoms seem to be happening in patients 60 and above.
"Now exactly how viruses are playing a role in the brain, you know, we don't know if it's a direct or an indirect, is it, are they getting into the brain? That's been a big question in the scientific community, but it may not matter so much in that we are seeing that there is in some people, this relation," said Dr. Snyder.
The "why" in this equation has still not been determined, but Dr. Snyder says that it may have something to do with damage to the immune system, which can damage the brain’s blood barrier – the defense that keeps it safe.
"Certainly, COVID is spread as a respiratory illness, but there are special problems that COVID causes that other respiratory illness does not," said neurologist Dr. Olav Jaren, from Overlake Hospital in Washington state.
He says that even though COVID-19 is mostly associated with the lungs, many patients experience different symptoms throughout the brain and body, and researchers are just scratching the surface of truly understanding this virus.
"Perhaps we will define this differently than as a respiratory illness," said Dr. Jaren.
More than 40 countries and more than 100 institutions are continuing to research the co-relation to COVID-19 and Alzheimer’s symptoms.
Dr. Snyder says the more work being done to figure that out may unlock other mysteries surrounding Alzheimer's itself.
"Really understanding the interplay of the different biologies, whether it be our immune system, our blood-brain barrier, just as to the vascular contributions and how all of these work together. I think one of the things that I'm most hopeful about in the field is really the diversity of what's moving into the pipeline," she said.
In the meantime, physicians hope findings like these inspire others to protect themselves and others.
"Do what you can to not get COVID, so get vaccinated. If you do get COVID, have that conversation with your health care provider. Make sure you take care of your health," said Dr. Snyder.