Have you already forgotten COVID-19? It may still be affecting your memory and cognition

COVID-19 may be regarded as a disease of the past, but it’s still causing health problems. A new British study reveals a link between the severity of the disease and long-term impairments in memory function among some of those who were infected.

The study, just published in the New England Journal of Medicine under the title “Cognition and Memory after COVID-19 in a Large Community Sample,” found a direct relationship between the type and severity of the coronavirus in the subjects and their cognitive function years later.

Conducted at Imperial College London by a team of British scholars, it encompassed over 800,000 individuals. It found that the cognitive effects varied according to the criteria – the timing of infection, the subtype of Coronavirus, and the duration of the disease.

The study indicated that illnesses that led to hospitalization or lasted beyond 12 weeks were associated with more significant cognitive impairment.

In addition, the researchers found that those who were vaccinated against COVID-19 in two doses experienced somewhat fewer cognitive deficits compared to those who were not vaccinated. As part of the research, an experiment was conducted in which more than 140,000 participants who fell ill with the virus participated, and aspart of it, cognitive tests were performed in the areas of memory, executive functions, impulsivity, vigilance, and attention.

In the experiment, it was found that the subjects had difficulty remembering visual images of objects they had seen a short time before, as well as formulating a new memory (remembering information taken a short time before) and forgetting problems.

The COVID-19 vaccine (illustrative). (credit: PIXABAY)

These difficulties are still common and significant today among patients who have been sick with the virus for an extended period of time.

It also emerged from the experiment that in cases where the length of patients’ hospital stays was short, no clear findings of impairments in memory functions were discovered.

In the study, it was emphasized that problems of brain fog and symptoms of long-Covid still returned and appeared even 12 weeks after being infected with the virus when at least five percent of the subjects had long-Covid symptoms.

The authors asked how one could strengthen cognitive abilities after experiencing decreased cognitive function and, in general, whether it was possible to train the brain just like a muscle undergoing a workout in the gym.

Itay Aniel, a brain and memory researcher and founder of the International Center for Memory Improvement who studied at Bar-Ilan, pointed out that various ways can help strengthen and improve memory function based on the flexibility of the brain as well as brain mechanisms related to memory function:

Make sure you get seven hours of sleep a night. It helps improve executive cognitive functions such as retrieving from memory, concentration, selective attention, ability to solve problems, and crystallization of new information acquired during the day and transferring it to long-term memory.

During sleep, the brain processes and organizes some of the memories acquired during the day, usually the more significant ones, and transfers them from short-term to long-term storage in the cerebral cortex.

In addition, sleep is beneficial for learning and acquiring skills. Studies have shown that people who get enough sleep after learning new information or skills perform better, especially when asked to demonstrate what they have learned.

Learn and apply learning and memory strategies regarding memory as a functional skill. This helps us form a concept that can be developed and improved through training and practice like any other skill.

In general, strategies based on creating associations and strengthening information in memory through linking it to strong and stable information that will not be forgotten (such as the names of body parts in the human body strategy or familiarity) may help us save and retrieve information more efficiently and quickly.

Over 100 learning and memory strategies are available for anyone to learn and practice. These strategies also include using acronyms, rhymes, visual images, combining emotions, or creating an interesting and experiential story that includes the information we want to remember. 

Grouping the information focuses on breaking down the information we want to remember into smaller, manageable pieces of information. By grouping related items together, we help the brain process and remember them more efficiently – for example, remembering a long sequence of numbers by grouping them into smaller groups and remembering the meaning of each one.

For example, the number 3651979163 can be broken down as follows: 365 (days in a year), 1979 (Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt), and 163 (floors in the tallest tower in the world – Burj Khalifa).

Studies show regular physical activity increases cognitive functions 

Regular physical activity has been shown to increase cognitive functions, including memory, by increasing blood flow to the brain, promoting new neurons’ growth, and triggering neurotransmitter release.

When you experience any kind of forgetting, document it to learn and understand the problem and, most importantly, to prevent a recurrence. Keeping a daily written record of what you have forgotten will help you raise awareness and understand the type and number of cases per day, even if they recur at certain times.

Such monitoring will allow you to learn the source of the forgetting problems, find appropriate solutions, and thus reduce them to zero. For example, if you notice that you tend to forget things in the morning, you can plan times and organize your morning routine more effectively before leaving the house.

Suppose one of your typical cases of forgetfulness is failing to lock a door. In that case, this problem can be turned into a daily exercise in such a way that every morning, we consciously practice locking the door, allocate a few seconds of selective attention to this action, say it in our heart or out loud, or lock the door with the non-dominant hand in a way that stimulates the brain more.

Write down the information that is important for you to remember – keep a notebook or a task sheet for writing the information that is important for us to remember during the day. In the era of smartphones, it is also possible to write what is important to us in the electronic notebook.

Writing (handwriting is better than typing) helps us encode the information better in memory, by activating and stimulating an area. Don’t stop learning. This is one of the greatest gifts you can have.

Choose at least one field or topic that interests you and deepen your learning in it. This way you will benefit twice; you will also enrich the knowledge that interests you and strengthen your memory.

During learning process, we create new neural connections in the brain and at the same time, we also strengthen existing neural connections. It can be said in connection with this, that our brain is constantly changing and the most obvious expression of the change it goes through throughout life, is in different learning processes in which we find ourselves.

Continuous learning is also one of the ways to keep the brain healthy and strong over time.