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It is hard to measure the exact impact long Covid is having on Britons but recent survey data suggests over a million people are currently afflicted by it. The phenomenon describes symptoms of Covid that stretch on for months after the initial infection has gone. Breathlessness is a common complaint but this is only the tip of the iceberg, a new study suggests.
The research, carried by University of Cambridge, has unearthed a number of cognitive issues associated with long Covid.
In a study of 181 long Covid patients, 78 percent reported difficulty concentrating, 69 percent reported brain fog, 68 percent reported forgetfulness, and 60 percent reported problems finding the right word in speech.
These self-reported symptoms were reflected in significantly lower ability to remember words and pictures in cognitive tests.
Participants carried out multiple tasks to assess their decision-making and memory.
These included remembering words in a list, and remembering which two images appeared together.
The results revealed a consistent pattern of ongoing memory problems in those who had suffered COVID-19 infection.
Problems were more pronounced in people whose overall ongoing symptoms were more severe.
To help understand the cause of the cognitive issues, the researchers investigated other symptoms that might be linked.
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They found that people who experienced fatigue and neurological symptoms, like dizziness and headache, during their initial illness were more likely to have cognitive symptoms later on.
They also found that those who were still experiencing neurological symptoms were particularly impaired on cognitive tests.
The findings are of particular concern given the prevalence of long Covid as a percentage of the workforce: the Office for National Statistics estimates that 10-25 percent of COVID-19 sufferers go on to have some degree of chronic illness.
“This is important evidence that when people say they’re having cognitive difficulties post-Covid, these are not necessarily the result of anxiety or depression. The effects are measurable – something concerning is happening,” said Doctor Muzaffer Kaser, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry and Consultant Psychiatrist at Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust, who was involved in the study.
He added: “Memory difficulties can significantly affect people’s daily lives, including the ability to do their jobs properly.”
The researchers said their results support other findings that suggest society will face a “long tail” of workforce illness due to long Covid.
It is therefore important not just for the sake of individuals, but for broader society, to be able to prevent, predict, identify and treat issues associated with long Covid.
“Long Covid has received very little attention politically or medically. It urgently needs to be taken more seriously, and cognitive issues are an important part of this. When politicians talk about ‘Living with COVID’ – that is, unmitigated infection, this is something they ignore. The impact on the working population could be huge,” said Doctor Lucy Cheke, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology and senior author of the paper.
Doctor Cheke continued: “People think that long Covid is ‘just’ fatigue or a cough, but cognitive issues are the second most common symptom – and our data suggest this is because there is a significant impact on the ability to remember.”
Doctor Kaser added: “Infection with the virus that causes COVID-19 can lead to inflammation in the body, and this inflammation can affect behaviour and cognitive performance in ways we still don’t fully understand, but we think are related to an early excessive immune response.”
Study participants were recruited between October 2020 and March 2021, when the Alpha variant and the original form of SARS-CoV-2 was circulating in the population.
Participants will continue to be monitored, using both symptom reports and objective cognitive tests, to see how long their symptoms persist.
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