• COVID-19 has put our brain health at risk, mostly because of isolation and changing behavioural patterns in lockdowns.
  • The virus has two risks for the brain: one from infection and the second from social isolation.
  • There are a range of ways to keep your brain healthy: from eating better, to exercise, reading and puzzles.

After COVID-19 put our brain health at risk, mostly because of isolation and changing behavioural patterns in lockdowns, doctors and health professionals underscored the importance of keeping our grey matter in fine fettle.

It’s also something that’s becoming increasingly vital as we live longer. The brain remains one of our most important organs: controlling and coordinating our thoughts and actions.

While many of the studies carried out during lockdown focused on older adults, the findings are useful for everyone, since we’ve all been grappling with a loss of social connection and a change of daily rhythms. One study concluded the COVID-19 pandemic has “a wide negative impact” on mental well-being, attributing a dual effect: one from infection and the second from social isolation.

Brain in danger due to covid-19
Brain in danger.
Image: Frontiers in Psychiatry

Elsewhere there is more evidence that COVID-19 can both, directly and indirectly, harm the brain. Infection with the virus can cause neurological symptoms in 82% of cases, according to a report from the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH).

“Such symptoms include delirium, brain inflammation, stroke, nerve damage and blood vessel injury,” the Brain Health network said. “Common neurological COVID-19 symptoms seen in a lot of cases include headaches, fatigue and ‘brain fog’ - difficulty thinking or concentrating.”

COVID-19 and brain health

On top of that, people who feel lonely and disconnected from others have been shown to have faster rates of cognitive decline than those who don't, according to the Harvard Medical School.

“People know that COVID-19 is a disease that affects the lungs, but they are not as aware that it can affect the brain as well,” says GCBH Chair and Professor of Neurology at John Hopkins University, Dr. Marilyn Albert.

“Even though there is much still to be learned about how COVID-19 affects our thinking, the GCBH wanted everyone to know this is a well-recognized problem, and emphasize that there are ways to address the health of their brain during the pandemic, and to address some of the negative effects of the isolation that many people are experiencing.”

Warding off dementia
Warding off dementia.
Image: Brain Health

The Brain Health Network advocates a number of ways to guard against deterioration of the brain, including staying physically active, eating a balanced diet - a Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce the risk of cognitive decline - engaging socially, getting good sleep and stimulating your brain by reading and doing puzzles.

Supercharge Your Brain’ advocates a range of ways to bolster brain health, including exercise, sticking to a routine, socializing, having sex and drinking water.

Only 25% of our ageing, both physical and mental, is determined by our DNA, Goodwin says. The other 75% is down to lifestyle and our environment.

Older people, new challenges

The Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Ageing looks at generating a positive narrative on the opportunities of ageing societies and how best to harness technology to help older people.

“The rise in new technologies will benefit healthy ageing and longevity by enabling people to live healthier, more fulfilling lives at all ages,” says Sofiat Akinola, Project Lead, World Economic Forum.

“For example, technological innovations have been deployed to keep people physically active, enable independent living such as by detecting falls, early detection of diseases and management of disease conditions, maintenance of social connections by reducing social isolation and continued engagement in the workforce, to name a few.”

With life expectancy increasing to 70 years or more in many countries and individuals aged 60 or older outnumbering children under the age of five worldwide, the onus is on all of us to start taking our brain health more seriously.