How and Why the Coronavirus Pandemic Might Be Messing with Your Memory

One writer shares how her memory took a hit from pandemic fatigue, plus what's she's doing to regain her health, and hopefully, her memory.

How and Why the Coronavirus Pandemic Might Be Messing with Your Memory , Girl photographed through splatter of ink
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Have you noticed that your memory isn't quite as sharp as it once was? Feeling like your brain is in a constant fog and you're having difficulty remembering what day it is or if you actually turned off the stove? Well, you're not alone – and the pandemic could be (at least, partially) to blame.

I used to have a very sharp memory. I could remember seemingly boring details from an event fifteen years back. Even after my two-year-old daughter was born and I had a million other mom-duties to keep up with, my memory always remained intact.But in the past year or so since the pandemic began, my memory has been touch and go – on numerous occasions I find myself forgetting things that my husband or mother mentioned to me minutes or days earlier. Was I dealing with pandemic fatigue-related memory loss, and if so why?

Anecdotally, I knew I wasn't alone either, so I asked Sujata Thawani, M.D. and neurologist at NYU Langone Health. Here, learn more about why your memories may be escaping you as yet another crummy result of this coronavirus pandemic. (Related: How to Deal With Health Anxiety During COVID-19, And Beyond)

Understanding Memory Loss

Memory loss can look different from person to person, but in general, if your memory issues are disrupting your life, that's when you should seek help. To be clear, some mild memory fog or forgetfulness is normal, especially as you get older. But memory loss, in general, can also point to more serious issues, including Alzheimer's disease and dementia, which is why a check-up with a doctor is a good idea if you're experiencing chronic issues with memory loss or forgetfulness that is impacting your quality of life or is even putting you at risk if the forgetfulness leads to potentially dangerous situations.

Memory loss can also be triggered by certain mental health issues including anxiety and depression (more on this below), which and affect people of all ages, which is another reason why seeing a doc is key when symptoms show up. Certain memory issues, such as those triggered by depression, anxiety, stressful events (e.g. the pandemic) can usually be treated and the memory loss reversed.

5 Reasons Pandemic Fatigue Can Trigger Memory Loss

Changes In Routine

The pandemic has changed what once was a normal way to live and experience life. Even with the vaccine roll-out well underway and nearly 60 percent of all Americans currently vaccinated, life is still not operating the way it was pre-pandemic. With many people deciding to continue to live life cautiously, people are still working remotely, not seeing friends as often or in the same settings, and not exploring or dining out as much as they did before. It's causing people to experience more depression and anxiety, according to Dr. Thawani. "Whether people are directly affected by having the coronavirus or not, there is just a lot of overall increased stress and anxiety amongst people that are affecting their mental health," she says. "And when you have these issues, such as depression or anxiety, it can manifest with cognitive issues [like memory loss]."

Having routines completely thrown off can do a number on your memory due to the limited exposure and, frankly, need to use your brain. "Being uprooted from a routine that gives you different exposure, such as to different environments, that can have an impact on people's cognition or memory or word-finding," says Dr. Thawani.

Less (and Worse) Sleep

At the beginning of the pandemic, my sleep was completely thrown off. I would find myself waking up in the middle of the night and then once I was up, my mind would start thinking about everything going on and I just couldn't stop. Though my family and I are fully vaccinated now, I am still nervous about the new virus variants and my sleep is still not that great. (Related: How and Why the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Messing with Your Sleep)

"I think sleep is a big part of this," says Dr. Thawani. "People may not be sleeping well because they're stressed, watching a lot of TV, or drinking a lot of alcohol [more so during the pandemic]." A study by Harvard Health shows that people who are persistently sleep-deprived are more likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, narrowed blood vessels, and heart disease. Each of these can decrease blood flow inside the brain, which is bad news for overall brain health and cognitive function.

Lack of exercise

Exercise is key for keeping people healthy in many ways, and those benefits extend to brain function and memory. Some people may have stopped exercising during the pandemic due to gym or studio closures, and find it difficult to exercise with how busy and overwhelming pandemic life can feel. "Not exercising — that affects your memory and your ability to retain new information," says Dr. Thawani. "Having a regular exercise routine where you get your heart rate up is neuro-protective. Overwhelmingly, study after study shows the benefits of exercise on the brain. People who exercise have a lower risk of developing dementia than those who don't." (Is The COVID-19 Pandemic Fostering Unhealthy Obsessions With Exercise?)

Isolation

Pre-pandemic, I used to make a point to get together with friends, even if it was just to take our kids to the park and grab a coffee. Thanks to COVID, social interaction can be tricky. "People who are socially isolated are more likely to develop dementia than people who are hanging out with friends or interacting with family," says Dr. Thawani of the cumulative effect of this isolation over time. Studies carried out before the pandemic found that social isolation can increase memory decline. "People aren't having those casual interactions such as going to the coffee shop or grabbing a sandwich for lunch," says Dr. Thawani, adding that it's not clear how this kind of sustained loss of social interaction during the pandemic will have on people's memory. (Related: How to Overcome Social Anxiety, According to Experts)

Depression

The pandemic saw an increase in people experiencing depression, including a difference from the early stages of the pandemic compared to later stages in 2021. A study done by The Lancet Regional Health-Americas found that 32.8 percent of adults experienced higher levels of depression symptoms in 2021, compared to 27.8 percent of adults in the early months of the pandemic in 2020 and 8.5 percent before the pandemic.

Dr. Thawani suggests seeing a doctor, therapist, or psychiatrist if you are experiencing symptoms of depression — pandemic-related or otherwise. "Anytime someone comes in; young or old, and is complaining of cognitive issues, neurologists should be screening for depression," she explains. "In regard to COVID, if it's depression related to the pandemic, you could see memory issues." Depression is very complex and can make it difficult to focus on work, make decisions, or even think clearly. These aspects can have an effect on how well you function, including your memory.

How Long Can Situational Memory Loss Last?

Though I was concerned that my own memory loss could be long-term, Dr. Thawani assured me that's not always the case. Memory can go back to normal for some people and for others, it may persist, she says. It should be noted that memory loss recovery depends on what type of memory loss you have, and if/when you seek treatment. She also adds that how you recover from memory loss depends on how you address the underlying issues, such as getting checked for depression or dementia, for example. Ask yourself, "Are you seeking mental health care?" she says. "Are you making a point to exercise? Are you making a point to reduce your alcohol consumption or other substances that can disrupt your sleep or have side effects related to cognitive issues?"

In the meantime, what can you do to support your memory? I personally find some "me time" can work wonders for my recall — whether I'm catching up with a good book, doing a puzzle, or taking a long walk outside. And Dr. Thawani agrees; she recommends making time for self-care and trying to get a good night's sleep. Although these suggestions can help some people, you should reach out to your doctor if you're concerned about your memory loss or if symptoms worsen.

As with routines, you've likely had to adjust your social life as well. Even though a Zoom happy hour can work wonders, there is something to be said for live and in-person social engagement — all within the safety regulations, of course. The CDC recommends that even fully vaccinated people should continue to wear masks indoors in public areas to reduce the risk of being infected with the Omicron variant. Dr. Thawani encourages people to re-engage as much as possible in their pre-COVID routine. "For young healthy adults, there is something to be said for social interactions, but the pandemic makes that tricky, even with more people now vaccinated," she says. "Take a walk with a friend, six feet apart with your masks on. This is all very important and is good for public health — not just from the infection standpoint — but for mental health and social engagement."

Many of the activities people engaged in pre-pandemic are just the things that kept your mind sharp, such as social interactions with friends, trips to the gym, or participating in a yoga class. There are ways to continue these activities, all while continuing to practice proper safety measures. Hopefully, once the pandemic is over, your minds and memory will be ready for whatever life throws your way.

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