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STAT Conference: Lessons learned from COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic holds plenty of lessons for scientists, policymakers, educators and the medical community. Many of those lessons were examined at the University of Denver’s second annual STAT (Seeking Tomorrow’s Answers Together) Conference on Jan. 26.

Among the presentations were discussions about the long-term health consequences of the coronavirus and its effect on younger generations.

Treating post-COVID-19 syndrome

New research indicates that cognitive behavioral and speech therapies show promise in treating the severe brain fog that patients with post-COVID-19 syndrome are experiencing.

A study of 203 patients with post-COVID symptoms reveals that deficits in attention, concentration, short-term memory and speech persisted for months after initial infection, Dr. Jinny Tavee, chief of neurology for National Jewish Health, told the audience assembled online for her STAT presentation.

While 75% of the patients reported mild cases of COVID-19, the long-lasting effects have been severe enough to prevent some from attending school and work or even carrying out day-to-day tasks.

Although MRI scans were normal in 98% of the patients, neuropsychological testing found that 78% displayed abnormalities in at least one cognitive domain.

A combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and speech therapy, with a focus on cognitive linguistics, helped with some individuals’ cognitive deficits. Of the patients who returned for a six-month follow-up, 46% showed improvement.

Although these therapies help, Tavee made it clear that further support systems need to be in place for people suffering lasting post-COVID symptoms. Access to counseling is important for those struggling with ongoing and life-altering brain fog. Connecting patients with social workers, Tavee said, is also necessary to get them much-needed resources.

For many, the road to recovery is long, with more severe symptoms posing serious challenges for both patients and the health care system.

Pandemic stress and younger generations

After two years of uncertainty, fear, frustration and loss, pandemic stress is taking a heavy toll on the physical and mental health of younger generations.

Increased stress due to the pandemic is not unique to young people, but they have been more likely to adopt unhealthy coping behaviors, such as over- and under-eating, increased alcohol consumption and sleeping too much or too little. That’s according to Dr. Lynn Bufka, associate chief of practice transformation at the American Psychological Association.

Stress also interferes with decision-making abilities, with 32% of adults, mostly younger ones, being so stressed that they struggle to make basic choices. Teens commonly report that their plans are disrupted, and planning seems impossible. And research suggests that symptoms of depression and anxiety have doubled among youth throughout the pandemic.

On top of the challenges that stress poses for mental health, physical health is also impaired. Some 47% of Americans delayed or canceled health care services at some point during the pandemic, and 53% reported being less physically active than they want to be.

Insufficient access to mental and physical health care is an underlying cause of pandemic stress too, Bufka noted.

“This should be a clarion call for us, that we have to act differently moving forward,” she said. “We can no longer say we’re going to address those issues around access or adequate numbers of health-care providers. We’ve got to start doing this now.”

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