Harvard Scientists Find Severe Cases of COVID-19 Increases Brain Aging

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease but also has effects on the brain. Harvard researchers found substantial evidence of gene usage in the brains of patients with COVID-19 resembling similar findings from those in aging brains.

Key takeaways:
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    Harvard scientists find patients who had COVID-19 may have accelerated brain aging.
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    Post-COVID commonly referred to as long COVID can have serious health implications even in less severe COVID-19 infections.
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    Follow-up appointments following COVID-19 and everyday steps against aging can be beneficial for cognitive functions.

Neurological symptoms following COVID-19 have been present in patients recovering from the virus. New experiments from Harvard Medical School scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center find COVID-19 patients have similar gene usage in their brains compared to aging brains.

The study provides evidence of necessary follow-up appointments for those neurological issues, including brain fog, memory loss, and depression following COVID-19.

Harvard scientists feature a molecular profiling technique titled RNA sequencing to analyze the levels of each gene expressed in a specific tissue sample. Researchers reviewed the changes in gene expression profiles in the brains of COVID-19 patients, comparing them to those who had not contracted the virus.

The study included 54 postmortem frontal cortex samples between the ages of 23 and 84 years old, including 21 samples of individuals with severe cases of COVID-19 and one asymptomatic person. These samples were age-and sex-matched to individuals who didn’t have COVID-19 along with no previous neurological or psychiatric disease.

Also, the scientists involved an age-and sex-matched individual without prior COVID-19 infection who had Alzheimer's disease to compare with the patient suffering from COVID-19 and Alzheimer’s. An additional independent group of nine uninfected individuals with a history of intensive care unit (ICU) or ventilator treatment was also incorporated.

Co-first author Jonathan Lee, a postdoctoral research fellow at Beth Israel Deaconess, highlights in a press release that gene expression within the brain tissue of patients who died of COVID-19 was similar to uninfected individuals at least 71 years old.

Another key researcher involved was the Institute for RNA Medicine at BIDMC Director and the Shields Warren Mallinckrodt Professor of Medical Research at Harvard Medical School, Frank Slack (Ph.D.), who was the study’s senior and co-corresponding author.

"We also emphasize the potential clinical value in modifying the factors associated with the risk of dementia — such as controlling weight and reducing excessive alcohol consumption — to reduce the risk or delay the development of aging-related neurological pathologies and cognitive decline,"

Frank Slack, Ph.D.

Slack believes the evidence shown in the study encourages recovered COVID-19 patients to seek further evaluation. When it comes to aging, it is important to stay a step ahead.

Long-term effects of COVID-19

COVID-19 is a disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, commonly causing symptoms similar to a cold, flu, or pneumonia. Most of the symptoms go away after two weeks, while specific symptoms may linger in some cases.

The phenomenon known as post-COVID contains many nicknames, including long COVID, long-haul COVID, and long-term effects of COVID. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) points to the high rate of individuals who have a severe battle with the disease. Symptoms of post-COVID can linger from weeks to years and vary depending on the person.

According to the CDC, people more susceptible to post-COVID include those with pre-existing conditions, no COVID-19 vaccination, and individuals experiencing multisystem inflammatory syndrome.

Some symptoms of post-COVID include:

  • Tiredness that interferes with daily activities
  • Symptoms inflame after an increased physical or mental effort
  • Cough, chest pain
  • Fever
  • Brain fog
  • Headaches
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Inability to smell or taste
  • Dizziness when moving

Research from the United Kingdom published in 2021 surveyed the neurological impacts of COVID-19. The U.K. study shows individuals not displaying symptoms of COVID-19 could still be impacted cognitively post-COVID. The U.K. study provides a much larger sample size (81,337)than the Harvard postmortem study.

Successfully aging

Research shows that COVID-19 can only impact aging negatively. Even without contracting the virus, staying mentally and physically sharp is important.

Having the appropriate serving size of fruits and vegetables combined with sustained levels of physical activity, along with cutting out any bad habits, such as smoking, is a great way to start. A recent Canadian study found extraneous sports to be one of the most effective ways to combat aging.

While these three solutions may help slow aging, they will not protect you from COVID-19. The CDC recommends updated COVID-19 boosters to help protect from the virus and other variant forms.

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