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What is 'brain fog,' and why are COVID-19 long-haulers more susceptible?

PHOENIX – Experts describe “brain fog” as a cognitive dysfunction when your brain isn’t performing in top shape.

Although everyone is susceptible to occasional brain fog, experts say some of the worst cases have been identified in the group known as COVID-19 "long-haulers" – patients who had the disease and recovered but still can’t “get going” as they did before falling ill.

In February, the National Institutes of Health opened a multifaceted study into “long COVID” and its effects in the United States. Researchers hope to answer such questions as why symptoms are worse and last longer for some patients than others, and whether the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 triggers other disorders of the brain and heart.

Two studies in England and Italy showed long-haulers did experience brain fog more commonly than non-COVID-19 patients during the pandemic. Long-haulers coping with brain fog improved over the course of the study.

Dr. Carmine Pariante, a professor of biological psychiatry at King’s College London, told The Guardian brain fog is the “cognitive equivalent of feeling emotionally distressed; it’s almost the way the brain expresses sadness, beyond the emotion” as a response to stress.

Should people be concerned about new COVID-19 outbreaks around the globe?

Although studies are in their initial stages, researchers don’t think brain fog stems from just one source. A predominant factor, though, is a lack of variety in our daily routine. CNBC reports that brain fog could be “a sign of something underlying, such as a health problem or the consequence of lifestyle choice.”

Doing a lot of the same things every day makes it hard for the brain to differentiate tasks, researchers say, so it essentially goes into an autopilot.

Those who spend a lot of time in front of a computer for virtual meetings or classes, are conditioning themselves to those settings. And when the Zoom connection is bad or the audio is choppy, the brain works even harder trying to identify it, giving you less space to understand and remember.

Dr. Janice Johnston of Redirect Health in metro Phoenix told ABC15 that people can combat brain fog by doing three things:

1. Exercise aerobically. It releases a protein called “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” that makes it easier for cells to connect and grow.

2. Eat a Mediterranean diet of fruits, veggies, nuts, beans and whole grains to improve heart health, and avoid recreational drugs and alcohol. The World Health Organization, Mayo Clinic and other health professionals laud the benefits of a Mediterranean diet.

3. Use cognitive stimulants, such as board games and puzzles, to work the cerebral cortex. When socializing, try something different, perhaps a new outdoor activity. The variety fires new synapses within the brain and improves mood.

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COVID long haulers suffering from 'brain fog' in high numbers.