As we head into our third fall and winter dealing with COVID-19, scientists are still trying to understand what the long-term effects of the virus will be like—and a new study from Case Western Reserve University suggests that for older adults, contracting COVID could be a major obstacle for their cognitive health.
The research, published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, found that folks aged 65 and older who were infected with COVID-19 were 50% to 80% more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease within a year compared to their peers who did not contract COVID-19. The highest risk was observed in women aged 85 or older.
"The factors that play into the development of Alzheimer's disease have been poorly understood, but two pieces considered important are prior infections, especially viral infections, and inflammation," study co-author Pamela Davis, M.D., Ph.D., said in a media release. "Since infection with SARS-CoV2 has been associated with central nervous system abnormalities including inflammation, we wanted to test whether, even in the short term, COVID could lead to increased diagnoses."
The study looked at medical records for millions of Americans in the 65-plus age range, with 5.8 million people in the control group and 400,000 in the COVID-19 group. The researchers were unable to determine if COVID-19 infection actually causes patients to develop Alzheimer's or if it simply causes the disease to express itself sooner than it would otherwise, but they plan to do more research on the subject going forward.
"Alzheimer's disease is a serious and challenging disease, and we thought we had turned some of the tide on it by reducing general risk factors such as hypertension, heart disease, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle," Davis said. "Now, so many people in the U.S. have had COVID and the long-term consequences of COVID are still emerging. It is important to continue to monitor the impact of this disease on future disability."
Because Alzheimer's continues to be a disease without a cure, it's critical to think about preventive measures, especially if you have a history of cognitive decline in your family. Consider continuing to wear masks around your older loved ones, and if they're already vaccinated, encouraging them to get a booster shot.
Of course, there are other preventive measures you can take to decrease your own risk for Alzheimer's, including shifting your diet just a tad. A 2021 study found that folks aged 65 and older who ate the MIND diet—a combination of the heart-healthy DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet—had fewer symptoms of cognitive decline, even if they already had an Alzheimer's diagnosis.
And studies have pointed to other little habits that could help you keep cognitive decline at bay. Even listening to music—and especially music that makes you want to dance—can boost your brain health. Other daily choices, like getting a good night's sleep and getting in some exercise, can also help.
The Bottom Line
New research out of Case Western Reserve University found that people aged 65 and older were up to 80% more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease within a year if they were infected with COVID-19. But there are ways you can help delay or prevent that cognitive decline, whether it's by wearing a mask around your loved ones or preparing tasty meals with lots of brain-healthy ingredients.