Doctor holding brain scan stock photo

Danilo Vitorovic, MD, a neurologist at Loma Linda University Health, supports claims that severe COVID-19 may age the brain by decades.

Brain fog, anxiety, and sleep disturbances are some long-haul COVID-19 symptoms, but recent studies have found that severe COVID-19 can cause lasting cognitive and mental health problems. Vitorovic says it’s important to understand that the virus is not in the brain, but instead, the brain is reaping the consequences of severe COVID-19-associated whole-body inflammation.

It’s quite devastating to see these effects on the younger population.

Danilo Vitorovic, MD

The brain aging process is driven at the cellular level by molecular changes that slowly accumulates with age. The changes are associated with increased inflammation, the tendency of neurons to die, and decreased ability to form new connections between neurons in the brain. Although cells possess mechanisms to repair or remove damage, they are not 100% efficient, and their efficiency declines with age. The detrimental effects of severe COVID-19 infection can induce the same molecular signatures of the natural aging process in the frontal cortex and on cognitive function.

Studies show patients 65 and younger can have brain changes seen in much older individuals, than others their age who did not suffer from severe COVID-19 infection.

“It’s quite devastating to see these effects on the younger population. The brain aging process should be age-appropriate,” Vitorovic says. “Now, some young people have their whole life ahead of them, and we still don’t know how much of recovery these people will have long-term.”

He says aging makes it more difficult to remember, think, and process information. Long-term solutions are still being studied, but Vitorovic references other inflammatory diseases, like multiple sclerosis, and their treatments for guidance.

“Gut health has a relationship with brain health,” he says. “Optimizing gut microbiome health has the potential to be helpful with any brain-related process that is related to inflammation.”

Lifestyle changes to restore gut health and potentially influence inflammation in the brain include exercising, eating a healthy diet, resting your body, and refraining from smoking or drinking alcohol.

If you feel you are suffering from long-COVID, make an appointment with your primary care provider and discuss your concerns.