Holiday travel raises concerns about Covid-19 and cognitive health

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, shoppers ordered trendy items from DoorDash and other delivery apps: potatoes, pie and cold medicine. This year, health professionals fear that holiday travel could exacerbate public health concerns. “We are facing an onslaught of three viruses – Covid, RSV and influenza. All at once. We call this a triple epidemic,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert, told NPR.

These fears of a triple pandemic are bringing Covid-19 back into the public eye. Researchers suggest that the virus can still cause long-term damage to your brain.

We’re bringing home the brain fog for the holidays

Sandra G. is a middle school teacher and contracted Covid-19 after she and her family took a road trip in 2021. A year after Sandra was diagnosed with the virus, she still struggles with symptoms such as confusion, distraction attention and exhaustion. “I feel like my brain is aging faster than my body – like my body has recovered from the fever and cough, but my brain is still recovering from Covid,” explains Sandra.

Brain fog can inhibit your memory and concentration. Oxford University researchers have found that Covid-19 patients can experience brain fog for up to two years after being diagnosed with the virus.

Sandra is not alone. A study published in Nature Medicine provides further evidence for this troubling link between brain health and the virus. Researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine analyzed health records for 154,000 veterans. Each of these veterans had tested positive for Covid-19 between 2020 and 2021. These patients had a 7% higher risk of developing neurological damage than people who had never been diagnosed with Covid-19.

Memory disorders, seizures and strokes are some of the most common neurological conditions associated with Covid-19. In fact, the Nature Medicine study indicates that patients with Covid-19 are 77% more likely to experience memory problems such as brain fog.

Protecting the elderly from Covid-19 and its potential cognitive side effects

Nearly half of Americans report that they plan to travel during the winter season. Millennials have the biggest appetite for travel this year and up to 83% of Millennials indicate they want to travel with their parents or grandparents or take a trip to spend time with their elderly relatives.

Why do epidemiologists worry about these travel statistics? Vacation travel can expose elderly loved ones to contagious diseases.

Older people are more likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19. But these hospitalizations can trigger serious cognitive health complications. About one-third of elderly patients experience hospital-acquired delirium. Covid-19 could increase the risk for this dangerous condition.

Since the pandemic began, patients who have developed pneumonia from Covid-19 have been particularly hard hit by hospital delirium. In these cases, patients may suddenly experience dementia-like symptoms: confusion, memory problems, and emotional outbursts or fear. Many cases of hospital delirium clear up when a patient returns to a familiar environment. But seniors who fall ill from a holiday triple epidemic could spend weeks or months in a hospital if they developed pneumonia, organ damage or COPD as a result of Covid-19.

Unsolved or extended cases of hospital delirium leave their mark. This delirium can accelerate dementia, and elderly patients who experience delirium in the hospital experience a shorter life expectancy and poorer mental functioning than patients who do not experience delirium.

With the threat of brain fog and hospital delirium, Covid-19 poses an enduring risk to geriatric health.

Protecting your brain health

Health professionals continue to study the long-term impact of Covid-19. Much remains uncertain, such as the exact duration and severity of these cognitive and neurological impacts. However, you can take steps to keep your brain healthy. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic say that a healthy diet and regular exercise can benefit the entire body, including the brain. You can strengthen your brain by regularly participating in intellectually challenging activities, such as reading, doing puzzles, learning a new language, or practicing an instrument.

If you plan to travel during the winter holidays, you can protect yourself and others from Covid-19 and its potential cognitive impacts. Depending on your doctor’s advice, you might consider getting vaccinated, wearing face masks and social distancing when possible.

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