woman with dementia sitting in chair

Studies presented this week at a major Alzheimer’s conference are shedding new light on how COVID-19 and pandemic conditions have impacted patients’ thinking skills and memory.

The findings, showcased at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2022, include new evidence of how a key symptom of long COVID may signal cognitive issues. 

Persistent loss of smell key predictor

In a study including 766 participants, researchers from Argentina showed that a persistent loss of the sense of smell is a better predictor of long-term cognitive decline and functional impairment than the severity of the COVID-19 illness.

“The more insight we have into what causes or at least predicts who will experience the significant long-term cognitive impact of COVID-19 infection, the better we can track it and begin to develop methods to prevent it,” said author Gabriela Gonzalez-Aleman, LCP, PhD, of Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, in Buenos Aires.

ICU stay tied to dementia risk

Meanwhile, a study from Chicago’s Rush University System for Health has answered a key question about dementia and intensive care unit hospitalization in seniors. Using Medicare claims data and standardized cognitive assessments, they found that ICU hospitalization was linked to double the risk of dementia in community-based older adults.

“These findings could be significant given the high rate of ICU hospitalization in older persons, and especially due to the tremendous upsurge in ICU hospitalizations during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said epidemiologist Bryan D. James, PhD, in a statement. “Understanding the link between ICU hospitalization and the development of dementia is of utmost importance now more than ever.”

Examining pandemic’s downsides and upsides

Two large studies in the same nine Latin America countries teased out positive and negative effects of pandemic-related circumstances. In one, female gender and lower socioeconomic status was tied to a higher rate of cognitive symptoms during the pandemic, with more negative life experiences increasing the number of symptoms. 

But experiencing a positive life change during the pandemic, such as more quality time with friends and family or more time in nature, appeared to reduce some of its deleterious effects on thinking and memory capabilities.

Identifying risk and protective factors for cognitive symptoms is another step toward future prevention methods, said study co-author María Marquine, PhD, of the University of California, San Diego. “The experience of positive life changes during the pandemic might buffer the detrimental impact of negative life changes on cognitive symptoms,” she said.

The Alzheimer’s Association International Conference is taking place between July 31 and August 4.

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