According to new research, there could be a connection between long COVID and memory loss.

When SARS-CoV-2 first appeared near the end of 2019, the goal of medical experts was to prevent the virus from spreading and save the lives of those who had it.

Now that some time has passed, this objective has expanded to include learning about the long-term effects of COVID-19. The post-infection symptoms that linger for months, known as “long COVID,” have been the subject of recent research.

If you or someone you know has recovered from COVID-19 and is experiencing memory loss, there may be a connection between the two.

As time passes, researchers have more opportunities to assess the long-term neurological effects of COVID-19. Memory loss is a lingering symptom that some people experience.

A 2021 study involving adults in Norway examined the effect of COVID-19 on memory. In the group that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 8 months prior, up to 11% self-reported problems with memory. Meanwhile, only 4% of participants who tested negative reported memory loss.

Memory loss can follow severe COVID-19 cases. Acute confusion — a symptom of delirium — was seen in about 65% of people hospitalized with COVID-19, according to a 2020 study.

Another 2020 study found that up to 28% of older adults — over the age of 65 — who visited the emergency room with COVID-19 also had delirium. Conversely, older adults with dementia have a higher chance of contracting the coronavirus.

A 2015 study suggests that about one-third of people who are critically ill might experience delirium. When that illness is COVID-19, critical care physicians believe that number can be even higher.

Studies about the extent of the effects of COVID-19 on the brain are still ongoing, but brain imaging offers some insight.

In a 2021 study, researchers compared pre-pandemic scans in the UK Biobank to repeat scans taken of 785 people, 401 of whom had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 before their second scan. Using this method, they discovered several brain changes associated with SARS-CoV-2:

  • reduced grey matter thickness and contrast in two areas of the brain
  • a marker of tissue damage in multiple brain regions
  • reduction in global measures of brain size

As well as having noticeable brain changes, participants post SARS-CoV-2 infection also demonstrated cognitive decline.

Researchers believe that some of these brain changes occur because of two reasons:

  • brain inflammation following a viral disease
  • viral neurotropism (viral invasion of nerves)

They also suggest that SARS-CoV-2 might enter the brain through the olfactory mucosa — the area inside your nose containing scent receptors that enable you to smell.

Another 2020 study supports this theory that the virus responsible for COVID-19 enters your brain directly through your nasal anatomy, then follows brain structures to areas like the medulla oblongata — the part of the brain responsible for breathing and heart rate.

A 2020 study involving 29 people who recovered from COVID-19, plus an additional 29 with no known disease, also supports the theory that brain inflammation from COVID-19 leads to lingering cognitive impairments.

Memory loss isn’t the only long COVID symptom researchers have identified. A 2021 study in Geneva evaluated people recovering from COVID-19. At 7 to 9 months post-virus, 39% of people were still experiencing symptoms such as:

  • fatigue: 20.7%
  • loss of taste or smell: 16.8%
  • shortness of breath: 11.7%
  • headache: 10%

Worth noting is that participants in this study were otherwise young and healthy.

According to a 2021 article, long COVID cough might be a neurological symptom, too. The authors suggest that three factors in the vagal sensory nerves create a state of cough hypersensitivity. These include:

  • neurotropism
  • neuroinflammation (inflammation in the brain or spinal cord)
  • neuroimmunomodulation (when the nervous system regulates the immune system)

Post-COVID cough can last for months and occur with:

  • fatigue
  • pain
  • cognitive impairment
  • shortness of breath

There’s currently no evidence that memory loss is a side effect of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Vaccination is one of the main defenses against COVID-19 and reduces the chance of hospitalization and a severe outcome. The side effects from vaccines are usually mild, ranging from soreness at the injection site to mild fever, fatigue, and muscle aches.

Very rarely, some people experience more significant COVID vaccine side effects, some of which are neurological. These side effects also occur because of COVID-19 itself and in much higher numbers from the virus than from the vaccine.

Vaccines are safe for most people. There are a few exceptions, and your doctor can review your medical history and help you decide whether vaccination is the right choice for you.

You can also visit the FDA COVID-19 Vaccines website for more information about the vaccines that protect against SARS-CoV-2.

Living with long COVID memory changes can feel overwhelming, but you can improve your experience with a few simple steps. Consider trying these strategies to boost your memory:

  • exercising regularly to promote blood flow to your brain
  • prioritizing proper sleep with a consistent schedule
  • eating nutrient-dense foods and staying hydrated
  • organizing your home and belongings
  • using tools like apps, lists, and alarms or timers to help you stay on task
  • staying in touch with friends and family
  • staying mentally active

COVID-19 can cause symptoms that last for months. Some of those symptoms are neurological such as cognitive impairment and memory loss.

It may be too soon to tell whether these changes will subside or remain. In the meantime, you can make health-oriented lifestyle changes to improve your memory and boost performance.

Connecting with others who share your experience would be helpful. A healthcare professional might have contact information for support groups in your area, or you can try these online support groups: