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Leading researchers explain long-term side effects of coronavirus

Heart problems, memory issues, brain fog, mental health impacts, dizziness, and shortness of breath are just some of the concerns stemming from COVID-19.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — In the heat of fighting coronavirus, jalapenos underscored how serious it was for Christy Perez from Summerfield.

“Let me just tell you I was a bottomless pit eating jalapenos. I wanted to see if I could taste it. And I couldn't taste it,” Perez said. “I didn't even break out in a sweat like jalapenos make you do. I thought: what is going on? This is one of your senses and now all of a sudden it's gone. I was like please God, I don't want to die."

According to research in the Journal of Internal Medicine, about 75 percent of coronavirus patients have problems with taste and smell.

Harvard Medical School Professor Andrew Budson says that's not because you get stuffed up like you would with a cold or the flu. Instead:

"Most people think the taste and smell are related to the virus directly affecting those nerves that go into the brain. That could certainly be true,” Budson said. “And it goes to show that the virus could be attacking the brain directly."

He's worried an attack on the brain could lead to long-term memory problems. Adding that Coronavirus also reduces blood oxygen levels which can cause brain damage. In addition, COVID-19 increases the chances of older people having mini-strokes which temporally cuts off blood flow to your brain. Budson thinks that might explain why some people who already recovered from coronavirus still deal with brain fog.


"So when someone is trying to figure out the answer to a difficult problem or they are working on a new software program or working on a new app on their phone. Those types of activities would be a little bit more difficult,” Budson said.

That's just the beginning. We interviewed a panel of four leading researchers from across the country. Each had their own concerns about the long-term impacts of COVID-19.

"So much fatigue that some people can't return to work. They can't function in their daily lives,” said Dr. Laurie Jacobs from Hackensack Meridian Health. "Some people have heart problems. They exhibit palpitations and lightheadedness and dizziness. When they stand up they are terribly dizzy and lightheaded. And their heart keeps racing and racing."

"We're seeing that there's an immune response,” said Dr. Heather Snyder with the Alzheimer’s Association.

“Prolonged chest pain. Shortness of breath” said University of Michigan’s Dr. Preeti Malani.
Because coronavirus has only been around for a year, research is still in the very early phase.

"It's unclear. There's a lot of questions that are outstanding that we need to ask and answer to really understand what the impact may be,” Snyder said.

They have learned out of every 100 COVID survivors, long-term side-effects appear to hit between two to seven of them.

“It's not that common, but because so many people have COVID, there are going to be large numbers of people,” Budson said.

"It appears as it is affecting people who have had mild disease just as much as people who have had severe disease, so it's not a connection to how sick you were with the original infection,” Jacobs said.

"We also don't fully understand what's going to happen with people. Are they going to get better are they going to feel like themselves or are they going to be this way for a long-time,” Malani said.

One other big problem: the experts all raised concerns about mental health impacts. They said they are seeing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder among people who nearly died and even issues in folks who had to isolate themselves for long at home while they battled the virus.

Again, the research is really in the early stages, but we do know these symptoms all started when people first had coronavirus and they never went away. It's not like you beat coronavirus and then months later get sick.

Most doctors expect to have a more solid idea of the long-term impacts by the end of 2021.

Meet the Experts

Dr. Andrew Budson is "Chief of Cognitive & Behavioral Neurology at the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, lecturer in neurology at Harvard Medical School, and chair of the Science of Learning Innovation Group at the Harvard Medical School Academy," according to his Harvard Health Blog bio. He recently published a piece on COVID-19's long-term cognitive effects. And he's the author of Seven Steps to Managing Your Memory, which includes exercises to improve your memory that could help fight the impacts of coronavirus.

Dr. Laurie Jacobs has almost 40 years of experience as a Geriatric Medicine Specialist. She currently works with Hackensack Meridian Health Medical Group. She has published 17 original peer-reviewed papers and 10 books and chapters of books.

Dr. Preeti Malani is the Chief Health Officer and a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan. She focuses on infectious diseases. She is also an Associate Editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, a leading research publication.

Dr. Heather Snyder is the Vice President of the Alzheimer's Association. Her bio there says, "Dr. Snyder is responsible for the progress the Association has made in Alzheimer's and dementia research funding. She leads the Association’s International Research Grant Program, the vehicle through which the Association funds promising investigations that advance understanding of Alzheimer's and moves the field toward solutions for the global Alzheimer's crisis." She has also been a peer reviewer for the National Institutes of Health, the CDC, and the Polish government.

For more stories like this one, like investigative reporter Ben Briscoe on Facebook.