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Memory and concentration problems common among long COVID sufferers

Self-reported symptoms were backed up by a significantly lower ability among long COVID sufferers to remember words and pictures in cognitive tests.

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By Gwyn Wright via SWNS

Memory and concentration problems are common among long COVID=19 sufferers and must not be ignored, a new study warned.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge say seven in ten people with the condition get muddled and struggle to concentrate.

People with the debilitating condition performed worse on cognitive tests than people without it, the academics added.

The severity of symptoms was linked to the level of fatigue, dizziness and headache people experienced during their initial bout of the bug.

Worryingly, half of long COVID-19 sufferers said they struggled to get doctors to take their condition seriously while three quarters were unable to work for long periods.

Dr. Lucy Cheke, the study’s senior author, said: “Long COVID has received very little attention politically or medically.

“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.

“People think that long COVID is ‘just’ fatigue or a cough, but cognitive issues are the second most common symptom - and our data suggest this is because there is a significant impact on the ability to remember.

“There is growing evidence that COVID-19 impacts the brain, and our findings reflect that.

“Infection with the virus that causes COVID-19 can lead to inflammation in the body, and this inflammation can affect behaviour and cognitive performance in ways we still don’t fully understand, but we think are related to an early excessive immune response.

“It is important that people seek help if they’re concerned about any persistent symptoms after COVID infection.

“COVID can affect multiple systems and further assessment is available in long COVID clinics across the UK, following a GP referral.”

Of the 181 people who took part in the study, 78 percent reported difficulty concentrating, 69 percent said they got brain fog, 68 percent said they experienced forgetfulness and three in five reported problems finding the right word in speech.

These self-reported symptoms were backed up by a significantly lower ability among long COVID sufferers to remember words and pictures in cognitive tests.

For the study, participants took part in several tasks to assess their decision-making and memory.

These included remembering words in a list and remembering which two images appeared together.

Results revealed a consistent pattern of ongoing memory problems in those who had suffered a coronavirus infection.

Problems were more pronounced in people whose overall ongoing symptoms were more severe.

The researchers investigated other symptoms that could be linked to long COVID-19 to help them get to grips with their causes.

They found people who experienced fatigue and neurological symptoms, such as dizziness and headache, during their initial illness were more likely to have cognitive symptoms later on.

They also found that those who were still experiencing neurological symptoms particularly struggled on cognitive tests.

The researchers found that even among people who were not admitted to hospital, those who had worse initial symptoms of coronavirus were more likely to have a variety of ongoing symptoms including nausea, abdominal pain, chest tightness and breathing issues weeks or months later.

Those symptoms were likely to be more severe than in people whose initial illness was mild.

They also found that people over 30 were more likely to have severe ongoing symptoms than younger people.

The findings are of particular concern given the prevalence of long COVID-19 which the Office for National Statistics estimates affects between 10 and 25 percent of people who get the disease.

More than one million Britons are estimated to be living with long COVID.

Lyn Curtis, 52, a mature student and long COVID sufferer, said: “Having been fit and active all my life, after catching COVID-19 during the first wave, my son (then 13) and I didn’t seem to recover.

“We were left with debilitating fatigue and a confusing mix of strange and life changing symptoms.

“I was also left with significant neurological symptoms, including speech and language issues, which had a huge impact on my life.

“My other children also experienced significant ongoing symptoms every time we were re-infected, such as changes to periods, fatigue, insomnia, changes in mood, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and nose bleeds.

“The acknowledgement of long COVID and a greater understanding of the associated symptoms is essential both for identifying treatments and the management of existing symptoms.

“The work into the effects on cognition are especially important to me, as this is the ongoing symptom that impacts the most on my quality of life and ability to work."

The researchers say long COVID is causing and will continue to cause high rates of workplace absence and disruption to society.

They say it is important not just for sufferers themselves but for society as a whole to understand what causes the condition and how it can be treated.

The vast majority of participants caught the bug six months or longer before they began taking part in the study.

Very few of them had been hospitalised with the illness.

A further 185 people who have never had the disease were recruited to be a control group.

Participants were recruited between October 2020 and March 2021, when the original strain and then the Alpha or Kent variant were dominant.

None of them had the Delta or Omicron variants although work is being done to recruit new participants to test how the findings hold up in people who caught these variants.

Participants will continue to be monitored, using both symptom reports and objective cognitive tests, to see how long their symptoms persist.

Guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) describe long COVID as "Signs or symptoms that develop during or after infection consistent with COVID-19, continue for more than 12 weeks and are not explained by an alternative diagnosis."

The findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

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