Long-hauler reacts to study showing COVID-19 changes in brain

Mar 7, 2022, 11:23 PM | Updated: Jun 8, 2022, 2:07 pm

SALT LAKE COUNTY — As a new study emerged that suggested even mild cases of COVID-19 change the brain and potentially speed up its aging, long-haul sufferers said the findings bring them a measure of vindication.

The study, published in the journal “Nature,” found those who had COVID-19 exhibited a more significant loss of grey matter as well as brain tissue abnormalities compared to those who had not contracted the disease.

Researchers said those in the study who exhibited a greater loss of brain tissue also performed the most poorly on a test gauging brain processing speed and function that is generally used to help identify cognitive impairments associated with dementia.

“It’s definitely a journey I never expected to have,” said Saralee Johnston, who came down with COVID-19 on March 8, 2020. “Just the case that I got was enough to knock me down for two years and I’m still recovering.”

Johnston said her flu-like symptoms had faded when she started experiencing other troubles.

“As soon as I started pushing myself a little with exercise, I had an episode of blindness in my right eye,” she told KSL TV.

Other problems soon surfaced, including temporary inabilities to read emails, interpret her own shorthand writing, remember names of coworkers and recall work processes she had personally designed.

Study links even mild COVID-19 to changes in the brain

“I didn’t link it to the illness that I had because nobody said this was something that COVID was doing,” Johnston said.

Researchers told CNN while the average person loses 0.2% to 0.3% of grey matter per year due to aging, those who had contracted COVID-19 lost an additional 0.2% to 2%.

They said the area of the brain most commonly impacted was the one related to sense of smell.

“Man, I saw that study and I felt vindicated,” Johnston chuckled.

After testing several medications, she said she finally found one in November that has started to help her.

She continues to advocate on behalf of others like her through the Utah COVID-19 Long Haulers group.

“I’m still struggling with processing information at a reasonable speed,” Johnston said. “It’s completely changed who I was as an employee, but also as a friend, as a mother, just being able to have the bandwidth to think through problems and take care of everyone and do the kinds of things I usually would do.”

She hoped the findings would somehow make a difference and she was grateful for the confirmation they brought to her personally.

“I knew that was a fact, you know, within the first several months that this is what was happening,” Johnston said. “It just takes some time for the science to catch up.”

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Long-hauler reacts to study showing COVID-19 changes in brain