CLEVELAND — Nearly six and half million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and now new research out of the COVID pandemic is painting an even more frightening future.
COVID, it appears, is also increasing the rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and researchers aren’t sure why.
In the age of electronic medical records, instant access to data has never been easier. While patient information is protected, researchers can see medical records.
Researchers from Case Western Reserve University analyzed more than 100 million medical records and found a disturbing trend when it comes to COVID and dementia.
"We started out with over 100 million electronic health records and six and a half million of those were of people over the age of 65. So we looked at people who had COVID in the first year of the pandemic, and then we followed them for a year. We asked what proportion of those individuals develop dementia and are diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. The ratio was 1.69 or 70% increase in the new diagnoses," says Pamela Davis, M.D., Ph.D., research professor at CWRU School of Medicine and Center for Community Health Integration.
The question is why?
One reason may point to the massive immune response the body launches to fight COVID. And there’s a lot of data indicating viral infections, which lead to inflammation, may cause Alzheimer’s disease.
"The inflammatory responses are sometimes tremendous, and those compounds do cross the blood brain barrier, and they could contribute to the Alzheimer's disease. We didn't expect to see quite as much as we did quite as soon as we did," Dr. Davis said.
The research is far from over. What’s not known is if COVID-type dementia is permanent.
"We're going to continue the study from the patients who got COVID early on. We also want to look at those who got it during the Delta phase, which was a nasty version of COVID, and then the most infectious phase, which was the Omicron phase. So we still have some waiting to do, to be able to follow those people for a year," Dr. Davis said.
Studies elsewhere are also showing concerning impacts with COVID and the brain. A study from the University of Oxford showed even mild COVID cases can have a cognitive function deficit.
They found concerning differences in brain scans from before and after a COVID infection, especially among women. Even mild cases showed subtle brain tissue damage and brain shrinkage.
"Some people argue that if you don't lose your sense of smell and taste, it hasn't invaded your brain in the same way the Alpha has, but I'll tell you we're still worried about it, we're still worried a great deal," Dr. Davis said.
The National Institute on Aging gave Case a five-year grant to continue their study.
"I think there will be very few people who come out the other end of the pandemic who haven't had COVID and what are we setting ourselves up for five and 10 years down the road? That keeps me up at night. And the other thing that keeps me up is, are there ways that we can blunt this? And what should we be doing to do that?" Dr. Davis said.
The data did give some insight to those questions.
"Vaccinated people have 30% lower chance to develop Alzheimer's disease," says co-researcher, Dr. Rong Xu, Professor of Biomedical Informatics, Director, Center for AI in Drug Discovery, CWRU School of Medicine.
Preliminary findings seem like common sense. Get vaccinated, try not to get COVID and if you do, talk to your doctor about receiving an antiviral treatment like Paxlovid.
"I am afraid that COVID is going to predispose to a lot of brain diseases. We're seeing now in long COVID, brain fog and forgetfulness but I think we're also seeing an impact on diagnoses of old brain diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease," Dr. Davis said.
The researchers also plan to check the medical record database for links between COVID, Parkinson's disease and ALS as well.