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Feeling Pandemic Brain Fatigue? You’re Not Alone!

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to update their guidance for people who have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. “COVID-19 vaccines are effective at protecting you from getting sick,” the experts report. “Based on what we know about COVID-19 vaccines, people who have been fully vaccinated can do things that they had stopped doing because of the pandemic.”

This means that most people who are vaccinated are safe resuming their normal activities, without wearing a mask except where required. They can travel, go to restaurants and social events, and hug their friends and family.

But some habits are hard to break! Does it feel disorienting to go about your business as usual? Some experts say that the months of social isolation have made many of us a bit wary of resuming our normal lives. And experts from Northwestern University Medicine (NU) recently reported that many people are suffering from “brain haze” or “brain fog”—which can even be seen in MRI imaging!

What is this “Brain Haze”?

“It’s an abnormal brain physiology,” reports NU neurology professor Dr. Borna Bonakarpour. “The connections between neurons are looser, less efficient, and less focused. If the brain is sharp and trying to solve a problem, we see one spotlight up in a functional MRI. If people are confused, you see the whole brain light up as it tries hard to figure things out, but it’s not efficient. There is a lot of distraction in the brain networks.”

You may have read about the neurologic effects some COVID survivors are experiencing, but this particular syndrome isn’t caused by the virus. Instead, it results from the way we’ve been living as we protect ourselves and others during the past year and a half.

“Stress and anxiety, lack of sleep, lack of daily structure as we work from home, home distractions, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, isolation and Zoom fatigue all contribute to brain haze,” reports Dr. Bonarkarpour. “All of these affect the executive and attention part of the brain, the frontal network. Brain haze is a lower efficiency of the frontal and executive networks. It means the brain isn’t processing things as efficiently as before. That’s why we don’t feel as sharp. And the effects are cumulative.”

Dr. Bonarkarpour’s colleague, gerontology professor Dr. June McKoy, reports that the effects of brain haze are especially pronounced in older people—mostly due to the harmful effects of loneliness. While social distancing protected the lives of countless older adults, it’s time now to address the side effects of this protective step most of us took.

Dr. McKoy urges older adults to get back into the swing of things as much as they can. She cautions that while our brains naturally slow down with age, the process can speed up considerably under the stress of loneliness. “Social isolation increases dementia risk by 50%. It has been said that loneliness is the social equivalent to feeling physical pain, and it triggers the same pathways in the brain that process emotional response to pain,” she reports. “Studies have found excess amounts of two brain proteins (beta-amyloid and Tau) in lonely older adults; these are the same proteins in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease.”

Dr. McKoy says lonely people also exhibit reduced brain volume in the parts of the brain associated with decision-making, memory, and emotions.

Getting our brains back up to speed

But there’s good news. Fortunately, older brains can regenerate brain cells (neurons) that were lost, and there are several great ways to increase that process:

  • Aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, swimming, running, or cycling, releases a protein in the brain that helps the regrowth of neurons.
  • Yoga and meditation reduce the stress that could decrease the growth of neurons.
  • Social activity “jump-starts the cognitive engine.”
  • Addressing depression, with medication or other treatment, also encourages neuron production.
  • Brain exercises, such as puzzles, reading, arts, books, and music, help clear brain haze.

Important note: People who have health conditions or take medications that weaken the immune system may not be fully protected, even if vaccinated. They should consult with their health care provider about the need for continued precautions, such as wearing a mask, maintaining social distancing, and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces. They should also continue to find alternate ways to exercise and avoid loneliness.

Online socialization is not as effective as in-person, but according to Dr. McKoy, these innovative ways to stay connected with friends, families, and social communities can be effective. We should continue to help vulnerable individuals access these technologies—let’s don’t forget them during our sprint back to normal life.

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