There are two things that occupy much of my fears these days – COVID-19 and Alzheimer’s Disease. The former for obvious reasons. The latter because my dad has Alzheimer’s disease, which increases the likelihood that I may also develop the disease. And new research is putting these two fears on a collision course that makes me want to curl in a ball and sob.
If you aren’t intimately familiar with Alzheimer’s (and until my dad was diagnosed with it, I was not), you cannot possibly understand just how wicked this disease is. I won’t get into the specifics of it out of respect for my family, but suffice to say, it is devastating. An estimated 6 million Americans are currently suffering from dementia caused by Alzheimer’s. That isn’t just 6 million individuals, but 6 million families. Because this disease truly impacts an entire family.
As if my fears of getting Alzheimer’s someday weren’t bad enough, now there’s the fear that COVID can actually trigger the disease as well. I’m terrified for myself, my family, and everyone I know and love who has been unfortunate enough to contract COVID-19.
According to NPR, researchers at UT Health San Antonio are “among the teams of scientists from around the world who will present their findings on how COVID-19 affects the brain at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference,” which began July 26 in Denver. Researchers report that PET scans taken before and after a person develops COVID-19 show changes in the brain that overlap those seen in patients with Alzheimer’s, and genetic studies find that some of the same genes that increase a person’s risk for serious COVID-19 also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Researchers are noticing that loss of smell may be particularly indicative of an overlap between the diseases. COVID-19 has caused persistent cognitive or mood problems for millions of people in the U.S. alone. Among these people, many describe acute forgetfulness and NPR reports that these symptoms are “similar to those of early Alzheimer’s, and doctors sometimes describe these patients as having an Alzheimer’s-like syndrome that can persist for many months.”
This isn’t just affecting older folks either. Cassandra Hernandez, a 38-year-old former nurse, has experienced life-altering neurological effects from COVID-19. Not just brain fog, but the loss of ability to do basic daily functions.
“We were at dinner, and I forgot how to use a fork,” Hernandez told NPR. “It was embarrassing. … Before this I was working on my master’s. Now I can do basic math, addition and subtraction, I can read at a fifth-grade level. I’m still working hard every day.”
Dr. Sudha Seshadri, founding director of the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at UT Health San Antonio, told NPR that it may take a decade to understand whether people like Cassandra Hernandez are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those who did not have COVID-19. Experts also expect that there may be a progressive component to COVID-19’s impact on the brain, just like Alzheimer’s, but they won’t know the true answer for several years.
But wait, there’s more (unfortunately). A study by the Cleveland Clinic has also found a link between infections of coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and brain changes commonly seen in Alzheimer’s patients.
“We found significant network-based relationships between COVID-19 and neuroinflammation and brain microvascular injury pathways and processes which are implicated in AD (Alzheimer’s disease),” the study, published in the Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy journal, stated.
This wouldn’t be the only virus that can trigger Alzheimer’s. According to NPR, previous research has suggested that exposure to viruses, such as herpes, can trigger an immune response in the brain that could “set the stage for Alzheimer’s.”
Okay, deep breath. In case you’re now fending off a mild panic attack, like I am, let’s try to put this in perspective. The data is new and still developing. Is this reason to panic? No. Does everyone who gets COVID-19 develop neurological problems? No. Is it another reason to get vaccinated and mask up while the Delta variant is raging? Absolutely.
Don’t be fooled by all those people who say “but it’s just like the flu” or “we need to build our immunity” or “young people don’t get seriously ill” — because that’s just not true. I have seen Alzheimer’s up close and personal, and it is heartbreaking. If there is any chance that COVID-19 could increase the risk of Alzheimer’s or cause neurological changes similar to Alzheimer’s, that alone is enough reason to protect yourself and others.