SAN FRANCISCO -- Problems remembering names and conversations, difficulty paying attention, and slower processing speeds -- these are all symptoms that people are experiencing post-COVID-19 infections. A new University of California, San Francisco study indicates these brain-related symptoms may be quite common.
"I would rather have the COVID infection five times in a row than what I've dealt with afterward," said former Mill Valley, California resident, Gigirenee Heredia, who was hospitalized with COVID last Spring.
She now lives in Florida and says 10 months later, she's still experiencing serious brain-related symptoms. "Tonight, for instance, I went to go to the store and I started feeling dizzy. And then I'm like, Where am I going? So I turned around and came home because I didn't feel safe. I'm almost like an Alzheimer's patient."
Heredia is 58 and says her long-hauler COVID symptoms make her unemployable. "It's been hard. It's been really hard," she said through tears.
"I'm getting the job done, but it's difficult," said Frank Dostal, who was the 208th person to test positive for COVID in Marin County in March. The 57-year-old small business owner was initially hospitalized. He recovered and was feeling good, until months later he was overcome with exhaustion and forgetfulness.
He says multi-tasking is now near impossible. "I'm not able to do more than one thing at a time well. So I have to stop everything and focus on one particular thing."
He's seen doctors and he's been to the ER, but says, "so far everybody is saying you're fine Frank, but I don't always feel 100% fine."
Dr. Joanna Hellmuth
"People aren't being legitimized, and they're very real neurologic disturbances they're having after COVID," said UCSF neurologist, Dr. Joanna Hellmuth.
She says the "disturbances" mirror symptoms from other viruses. "If I didn't know in advance if one of my patients had HIV or COVID, I wouldn't be able to tell you the difference between the two it's so similar."
Dr. Hellmuth recently published a study that shows 20% of her the participants had persistent cognitive symptoms after COVID infections. "These problems seem to be quite common." She says her study was based on 100 patients, none of whom had been hospitalized. Their ages ranged from 35-56 and the median age was 39.
"Surviving from COVID is great, but we now need to be also thinking about the long term impacts to society, if we have millions of people who are no longer able to contribute in the workplace like they used to."
She explained that more studies on COVID cognitive symptoms and long-haulers are ongoing, but that right now, "we don't know what's causing this so we don't have good treatments. Right now I'm recommending that my patients do all of the brain healthy activities that we know can promote brain health, things like cardiovascular exercise, so exercising two and a half to three hours a week."
She says eating a healthy Mediterranean diet and staying socially active is also important for brain health.
Dr. Hellmuth says part of the struggle with diagnosing these symptoms is that most screening tools are geared towards identifying dementia and are not picking up COVID-related brain changes. She says physicians should refer patients for neuropsychological testing if they are reporting these types of symptoms post COVID.