Severe COVID-19 is associated with accelerated aging | Fact check

A health worker administers a dose of COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic in Reading, Pa. On Friday, Feb. 3, 2023.
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The claim: COVID-19 vaccines 'speed up the aging process'

An April 25 Instagram post (direct link, archive link) shows a collage that features NFL player Damar Hamlin, Dr. Anthony Fauci and a stormtrooper from Star Wars.

"The COVID shots speeds (sic) up the aging process within the human body," reads text included in the post. "Therefore, those who are fully vaccinated, will age faster than those who are not vaccinated and possess age related diseases way before their time."

The post was liked more than 500 times in nine days.

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Our rating: False

There is no evidence the COVID-19 vaccines speed up the aging process, an expert told USA TODAY. The same can't be said for the virus it helps prevent, however: Some researchers have found links between severe cases of COVID-19 and signs of accelerated aging.

No evidence COVID-19 vaccines speed up the aging process

Dr. Stuart Ray, a professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said there is no evidence COVID-19 vaccines cause accelerated aging.

"On the contrary, they reduce the risk of severe COVID-19," Ray said in an email to USA TODAY. "To the extent that severe COVID-19 is associated with accelerated aging, the COVID-19 vaccines would be expected to reduce that risk."

There is no avoiding chronological aging, Ray said, but aging can also be viewed as a process of deterioration that involves accumulating injuries and being at a higher risk for age-related diseases. Diseases or other ailments that happen more often with age can be associated with specific characteristics, such as gene expression, and deemed aging-related, Ray said.

"If they develop rapidly, they might be called accelerated aging, though such terminology is imprecise since aging is not a uniform process biologically," he said.

Fact check: FDA still recommends COVID-19 vaccine, contrary to viral claim

There are multiple studies that show links between severe cases of COVID-19 and accelerated aging. A 2022 study by scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, for example, found "patients with severe COVID-19 exhibit a drop in cognitive performance that mimics accelerated aging," The Harvard Gazette reported.

“Ours is the first study to show that COVID-19 is associated with the molecular signatures of brain aging,” Maria Mavrikaki, a Harvard Medical School pathology instructor and one of the study's authors, told The Harvard Gazette. “We found striking similarities between the brains of patients with COVID-19 and aged individuals.”

A 2022 study published in Advanced Biomedical Research, a peer-reviewed online journal, suggests a consequence of the pandemic will be more people experiencing medical issues similar to problems common with old age.

"Based on the available evidence, our hypothesis is that the (COVID-19) pandemic and its long-term complications will lead to premature aging – in terms of health – of many people in the world," the study says.

Another 2022 study published in Nature Communications, a scientific journal, found COVID-19 could accelerate epigenetic aging, which shows the "true age that our cells, tissues and organ systems appear to be, based on biochemistry," according to the National Institute on Aging.

The COVID-19 vaccines lower the risk of developing a severe illness, "saving millions of lives and preventing many of the complications of severe COVID-19 disease," Ray said.

USA TODAY reached out to the social media user who shared the post for comment but did not immediately receive a response.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 linked to accelerated aging | Fact check