COVID Memory Loss: Here Are the Facts, According to Neurology Experts

Updated: Dec. 23, 2023

One neurology doctor confirms COVID sometimes affects the brain's "biochemical environment." Here's how to tell if COVID memory loss is impacting you.

If you’re feeling mentally “off” since you had COVID-19, COVID memory loss feels like a very real ailment among many people who have battled a COVID infection. Researchers are still learning about memory loss from COVID, but experts like Jacqueline H. Becker, PhD, a clinical neurologist and assistant professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, offer their expertise based on what they do currently know.

To explain COVID memory loss, Dr. Becker says: “These cognitive symptoms [from COVID-19] can often feel like memory problems, but we now know that COVID-19 tends to affect other areas of cognition like attention, speed of information processing, and something called executive functioning.”

Dr. Becker adds what might seem like a major aha: “COVID doesn’t actually cause memory loss. COVID-19 has been associated with cognitive impairment.”

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COVID and memory loss symptoms

According to Joel Salinas, MD, clinical assistant professor of neurology at NYU Langone in New York City and chief medical officer at the online memory care clinic Isaac Health, “The COVID-related cognitive changes that someone may have … there’s a lot that’s been learned, and I think there’s more to be figured through.” He adds that COVID-19 can cause inflammation in the brain and affect the “biochemical environment” of brain cells. In some cases, this can certainly play into that hazy sensation.

Dr. Salinas says symptoms of COVID memory loss can include:

  • Slowed processing speed
  • Difficulty finding the right words
  • Getting lost
  • Mood and behavior changes (impulsivity, anxiety, irritability)
  • Brain fog (sluggish thinking)

COVID memory loss can happen to people at any age, but Dr. Salinas notes, “For people at high risk for Alzheimer’s and neurodegenerative conditions, they’re usually presenting sooner [following infection].”

If you’re experiencing new memory problems and wondering whether it’s due to an earlier COVID-19 infection, Dr. Becker says it’s reasonable to seek care anywhere from one month to three months after recovering from COVID. She adds, “Primary care physicians should be the first point of contact to rule out or treat other factors aside from COVID-19 that may be contributing to the memory problems.”

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Is it COVID memory loss…or something else?

Figuring out whether cognitive or memory problems are specifically attributed to COVID-19 or another cause can be complex and may require a thorough neuropsychological evaluation, Dr. Becker explains. “Cognitive problems can result from a wide range of factors that will first need to be ruled out, including other illnesses or infections, medications, stress, sleep disturbances, mental health or neurological conditions, and even aging,” Dr. Becker notes.

Neuropsychologists can take a comprehensive medical history, use neuroimaging and other diagnostic tests, and administer neurocognitive tests to determine the pattern of impairment (if any). Dr. Becker says the timing of when the cognitive problems started, as well as their severity, persistence, and course will be a part of the evaluation. In addition, a thorough medical assessment may be essential to rule out other potential causes and determine the most likely contributing factors to memory loss.

How long can COVID memory loss last?

“In general, people will recover [from COVID memory loss] as they recover from a COVID infection,” Dr. Salinas says. But some people do have lingering symptoms, known as “long COVID.”

Dr. Salinas suggests it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis. You can do a lot to improve your memory, as he says some short-term memory loss is completely reversible.

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How can I restore memory after COVID-19?

Dr. Salinas says it depends on the individual how well they’ll respond. Cognitive rehabilitation therapy, a non-drug intervention, can help. There are also cognitive coaches.

“In the meantime, patients should make sure to get enough sleep, manage their stress, eat a balanced diet, and manage any pre-existing medical conditions,” Dr. Becker says, adding that there’s no single treatment for cognitive or memory problems related to COVID-19. Research is ongoing.

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Is it really COVID memory loss?

Not to dismiss anyone’s situation, but there is some research showing that what we deem COVID memory loss may not actually be memory loss at all. (This is why getting an accurate diagnosis is so key.)

Linda Chang, MD, a professor at University of Maryland School of Medicine and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, led a recent study which found that people with brain fog, memory issues, or other neuropsychiatric symptoms after COVID-19 had abnormal brain activity during memory tests on functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). “Based on work that we did in the participants who were evaluated with detailed cognitive tests, brain MRI and neurological and psychiatric examinations, as well as detailed psychological symptom surveys, individuals who reported having persistent ‘memory and attention problems’ actually had persistent fatigue and depressive or anxiety symptoms, and their memory were not really affected,” Dr. Chang says.

Although 79% of participants reported problems with memory 93% said concentration was an issue, they performed well on cognitive tests assessing memory and concentration. Still, 64% had problems with sleep, 86% reported fatigue, and 68% reported depression or anxiety. These “contributed to their apparent symptoms of memory loss.”

Though Dr. Chang hasn’t studied solutions, she says improving sleep and minimizing known causes for anxiety and depression may help. “I think the actual incidence of COVID memory loss may be over-estimated since most studies may rely on ‘self-report,’ which may be confounded by the psychological or psychiatric symptoms,” Dr. Chang says. “These mental health problems are frequent and need to be addressed and treated in these patients.”