Survey of US adults reveals common cognitive symptoms in post-COVID-19 patients, linked to impaired daily functioning and depression

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In a recent study published in the journal JAMA Network Open, a team of scientists examined how prevalent self-reported cognitive symptoms were in individuals with post-coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) condition as compared to individuals who had prior severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infections but had not developed post-COVID-19 condition. They also evaluated the impact of these cognitive symptoms on mood, function, and employment status.

Study: Cognitive Symptoms of Post–COVID-19 Condition and Daily Functioning. Image Credit: PeopleImages.com - Yuri A/Shutterstock.com
Study: Cognitive Symptoms of Post–COVID-19 Condition and Daily Functioning. Image Credit: PeopleImages.com - Yuri A/Shutterstock.com

Background

One of the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been post-COVID-19 condition, commonly referred to as long coronavirus disease (long COVID), where the symptoms of acute SARS-CoV-2 infections persist or remerge months after recovering from the initial infection. The condition consists of wide-ranging symptoms affecting numerous organ systems, with fatigue, shortness of breath, and post-exertional malaise being the most common symptoms.

Changes in mood and cognitive impairments have also been reported, with studies confirming the long-lasting impact of SARS-CoV-2 infections on neurological health. These persistent physical and neurological symptoms continue to have a significant impact on the functioning and quality of life of the patients long after they have recovered from the initial infection. Understanding how this condition impacts the individual’s productivity or employment status is essential to forming effective treatment mechanisms and public health strategies.

About the study

In the present study, the researchers used data from a survey conducted across the United States (U.S.) during two COVID-19 waves among individuals who had reported post-COVID-19 condition symptoms and those who reported complete recovery after a SARS-CoV-2 infection. The data was collected between December 2022 and January 2023 and then again from April to May 2023 across 50 U.S. states.

The participants were above 18 years of age, and the study population was balanced for demographic factors such as gender, age, race, and ethnicity. A validated measure for patient-reported outcomes was used to design the questions on cognitive symptoms, which largely included questions on how often patients experienced specific symptoms over the previous week with replies on a five-point scale.

The questions addressed the prevalence of symptoms such as trouble remembering, trouble starting tasks, slowed thinking, finding multitasking difficult, decision-making problems, and needing to pay extra attention to avoid errors. The number of symptoms and presence of these symptoms based on an occurrence rate of at least once a day were recorded for each patient.

A nine-item questionnaire was also used to assess depressive symptoms in patients. Additionally, the patients were asked to describe how these cognitive post-COVID-19 symptoms interfered with their daily activities. The employment status of the participants was also recorded and categorized as full-time, contract, part-time, self-employed, homemaker, student, retired, or unemployed.

Sociodemographic information collected from the participants included self-reported race and ethnicity data. The initial SARS-CoV-2 infection and post-COVID-19 condition were defined based on self-reported symptoms from the participants, such as reports of positive test results for COVID-19.

Results

The results showed that cognitive symptoms were prevalent in individuals experiencing post-COVID-19 conditions, and these symptoms were associated with functional impairments and a lower likelihood of holding full-time employment. The severity of depressive symptoms was also greater for individuals with cognitive post-COVID-19 symptoms.

The number of individuals with post-COVID-19 condition who reported experiencing cognitive impairments was significantly higher than those who reported cognitive symptoms but did not have post-COVID-19 condition. Furthermore, women, younger individuals, and people with lower income levels showed a higher prevalence of cognitive symptoms than those in other sociodemographic groups.

The researchers believe that the higher prevalence of cognitive impairments reported among younger individuals could be due to the notable change from the baseline measurements before the COVID-19 pandemic. Among older individuals, who might already be experiencing cognitive decline associated with age, the cognitive impairments due to post-COVID-19 condition might not be as apparent as in younger individuals.

The study also suggested that the association between increased prevalence of cognitive impairments among individuals from lower-income households could reflect the influence of economic stress on the vulnerability to cognitive symptoms of post-COVID-19 conditions.

Conclusions

Overall, the study found that cognitive decline was highly prevalent among individuals with long COVID or post-COVID-19 conditions, especially among younger individuals, women, and those from low-income households.

Furthermore, the probability of full-time employment was found to be lower among individuals experiencing cognitive impairments due to long COVID, highlighting the need for public health strategies and treatment measures to improve the quality of life and functional abilities of individuals suffering from post-COVID-19 condition.

Journal reference:
Dr. Chinta Sidharthan

Written by

Dr. Chinta Sidharthan

Chinta Sidharthan is a writer based in Bangalore, India. Her academic background is in evolutionary biology and genetics, and she has extensive experience in scientific research, teaching, science writing, and herpetology. Chinta holds a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the Indian Institute of Science and is passionate about science education, writing, animals, wildlife, and conservation. For her doctoral research, she explored the origins and diversification of blindsnakes in India, as a part of which she did extensive fieldwork in the jungles of southern India. She has received the Canadian Governor General’s bronze medal and Bangalore University gold medal for academic excellence and published her research in high-impact journals.

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