COVID-19 and Dementia: Effects on Symptoms and Prevention Tips for Caregivers

Medically Reviewed By Shilpa Amin, M.D., CAQ, FAAFP

Living with dementia can increase a person’s risk of developing COVID-19 and make symptoms more severe. By taking preventive steps such as vaccination and frequent handwashing, caregivers can help lower COVID-19 risk for people with dementia. Dementia itself does not increase the risk of any disease, including COVID-19. However, specific symptoms and behaviors related to dementia can make a person more vulnerable. These same factors also can make COVID-19 symptoms more severe in someone with dementia.

This article explains how dementia affects a person’s risk of developing COVID-19 and the impact the virus can have on dementia. It also offers COVID-19 prevention tips for caregivers and visitors at care facilities.

Does dementia increase a person’s risk of developing COVID-19?

Young boy with father greeting grandmother while wearing masks and bumping elbows
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According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the condition of dementia itself most likely does not increase a person’s risk for COVID-19.

However, factors related to dementia can make someone more likely to develop COVID-19. These include:

Many people with dementia also live in care facilities, where COVID-19 infection risk may be elevated.

During the first months of the pandemic, the rate of COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents was more than 100 times Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source higher Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source than the rate for nonresidents.

Learn more about COVID-19 risk factors.

Do people with dementia have more severe symptoms of COVID-19?

While most people have mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19, people with dementia may experience more severe symptoms.

A 2021 study Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source found that people with dementia are more likely to require hospitalization and have severe or fatal cases of COVID-19 than those without dementia.

The same study notes that conditions often associated with dementia — such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes — are also linked to more severe COVID-19.

However, even after adjusting for these risk factors, researchers found that people with dementia still had higher rates of COVID-19 than the rest of the population.

Learn more about complications of dementia.

Does COVID-19 infection increase the severity of dementia symptoms?

In a 2021 review article, researchers note that changes in cognitive ability, known as “COVID-19 fog,” have been reported in people with COVID-19. It is unclear whether this symptom can also make memory symptoms more severe in someone with dementia.

A 2021 study Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source explains that when the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 enters the body, it affects multiple organs, including the brain and nervous system.

In the study, researchers theorize that damage to any organ, not just the brain, can have long-term effects on thinking ability. This may include the progression or worsening of dementia.

Can COVID-19 infection cause new-onset Alzheimer’s disease?

It’s unclear whether having COVID-19 increases your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

However, a 2022 study suggests that inflammation from COVID-19 may be associated with dementia.

Study participants who recovered from COVID-19 showed an increase in proteins responsible for Alzheimer’s disease. These proteins developed after inflammation in the brain.

Another 2022 study found that adults ages 65 and older had a significantly increased risk for a new diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease within 360 days after developing COVID-19. This was especially true in people ages 85 and older and people assigned female at birth.

However, the authors note that more research is needed, including on other types of dementia.

Learn more about Alzheimer’s disease risk factors.

Does COVID-19 cause memory loss?

One reported symptom Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source of long COVID is known commonly as “brain fog” or “COVID-19 fog.” This term describes a loss of cognitive ability and memory related to long-term recovery from COVID-19.

A 2021 study Trusted Source JAMA Peer reviewed journal Go to source found that one of the most common cognitive problems after COVID-19 is a decline in executive functioning. Executive functioning skills allow you to:

  • plan
  • focus
  • follow instructions
  • multitask

Problems with executive functioning can impact your memory and the speed at which your brain processes information. Study participants also had trouble with memory recall and encoding, which is how your brain processes, stores, and retrieves information.

Learn more about COVID-19 brain fog symptoms and treatments.

Can people with dementia get the COVID-19 vaccine?

According to the Alzheimer’s Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source , the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective for people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.

Also, vaccines and boosters are essential in protecting people with dementia from COVID-19 and serious illnesses.

If you care for a person with dementia who cannot provide consent for vaccination, ask your doctor about getting consent from the person authorized to make healthcare decisions for your loved one.

What are COVID-19 prevention steps for people with dementia?

Because people living with dementia are more at risk for COVID-19, it’s important for those around them to take certain precautions.

For caregivers at home

There are several ways caregivers can help reduce the spread of COVID-19 at home, including the following:

  • Stay current on COVID-19 vaccination: Even if your loved one is vaccinated, they can still develop COVID-19, especially if exposed to people who have not been vaccinated.
  • Encourage thorough handwashing: You may need to show proper handwashing or put signs in the bathroom to remind your loved one to wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds.  
  • Provide alcohol-based hand sanitizer as a backup: At times when your loved one is unable to easily wash their hands, a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol can be an effective alternative.
  • Stay updated: The Alzheimer’s Association provides resources, support, and tips about the coronavirus pandemic for people living with dementia.

For visitors at care facilities

Seeing and visiting with loved ones is essential to someone’s care when living with dementia. However, friends and family still need to take precautions when visiting a loved one.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services provides these guidelines when visiting care facilities:

  • Stay up to date on recommended COVID-19 vaccinations, including boosters.
  • While in the facility, wear a well-fitting mask.
  • Avoid large groups of people gathering at one time.
  • Where possible, maintain physical distancing.
  • If your loved one has a roommate, try to visit at a time when they are not in the room.
  • If you plan to eat a meal with your loved one, make efforts to maintain physical distancing from other residents.

If you have COVID-19 symptoms or have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, check the CDC guidance Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source on how long you should wait before visiting a loved one at a nursing home.

Summary

Living with dementia can increase your risk of developing COVID-19. This can be due to advanced age, health risk factors, and memory issues, which may make it challenging to follow COVID-19 prevention steps.

Research shows that people with dementia are more likely to develop severe COVID-19 symptoms. Because the virus can affect the brain, COVID-19 may also affect the progression of dementia.

Caregivers can help lower the risk of COVID-19 in people with dementia. Preventive steps include ensuring that all vaccinations are current, washing hands regularly, and practicing physical distancing.

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Medical Reviewer: Shilpa Amin, M.D., CAQ, FAAFP
Last Review Date: 2023 Feb 15
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