The economic and societal effects of COVID-19 on our brains

image of MRI scans on the brain

Brain Capital conceptualizes brain health (e.g., the lack of mental illness and neurodegenerative disease) and brain skills (e.g., education) as essential to the knowledge economy. This concept is based on the assumption that our brains are our greatest asset and provides a framework to define brain issues, quantify them, and track them. Brain Capital can be driven into policies and investments

COVID-19 has had enormous negative effects on individual, societal, and worldwide Brain Capital.  We are in the infancy stages of understanding COVID-19’s short- and long-term effects on the brain. However, what we do know is alarming. While COVID-19 is mainly a respiratory illness, long-COVID-19 is increasingly being revealed as a neuropsychiatric disorder. In other words, long-COVID-19 is all about the brain. An estimated 22-32 percent of patients who recover from COVID-19 experience brain fog and cognitive challenges as part of their experience of long COVID-19. Other research suggests that one-third of COVID-19 sufferers will have a new onset or recurrent psychiatric problem (often depression or anxiety) in the ensuing year. Additionally, it is not just people with severe COVID-19 who are affected. Studies have found that people across all stages of COVID-19, including those who were and were not hospitalized, have experienced challenges with attention, memory, and executive functioning. From a clinical perspective, we know that several factors can lead to post-COVID-19 cognitive problems and mental disorders, including pre-existing illnesses, damage from the virus itself, neuroinflammation, and vascular damage. However, further research is needed to understand the full mechanisms and implications of COVID-19 on the brain.  

This decline in brain healthand thus of Brain Capitalfrom COVID-19 has led to and will continue to lead to negative economic and societal implications. With colleagues at the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s (OECD) New Approaches to Economic Challenges Unit (NAEC), we have shownvia our Neuroscience-inspired Policy Initiativethat Brain Capital drives economic empowerment, brain performance, social resilience, and emotional connection. Brain Capital is the underpinnings of economic growth and prosperity. It postulates that our brains are our greatest assets, and if we strategically invest in Brain Capital, the payoff is our country’s future, economy, innovation, wellbeing, and even democratic strength 

COVID-19 has additionally amplified a pre-existing mental health crisis across the world further harming Brain Capital. According to a recent scientific brief by the World Health Organization, in the first year of COVID-19, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25 percent. Multiple factors, including social isolation, loneliness, grief, financial worries, and more, converged during COVID-19 to cause unprecedented stress and mental health challenges and revealed existing health inequities. Further, youth have been disproportionately affected. Youth mental health issues were increasing well before the pandemic, but COVID-19 magnified and perpetuated these challenges. This led the United States Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, to issue a surgeon general advisory on the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis. Advisories are reserved for significant public health challenges and have previously included advisories on opiates and smoking. The recent surgeon general’s advisory calls for increased investment and immediate responses to prevent youth mental health from becoming a second pandemic.  

We urgently need innovation to address COVID-19’s effects on Brain Capital.

Promoting and investing in youth Brain Capital is critical to building a resilient future. This includes not only addressing youth mental health, but also working to promote education and training of young people, which has suffered greatly during the COVID-19 era. According to a recent report by the International Labour Organization, 65 percent of young people reported having learned less since the beginning of the pandemic. Additionally, 38 percent of young people reported being uncertain of their future career prospects. If the education and training of young people are left unaddressed, this will perpetuate the mental health crisis and cause negative effects on Brain Capital for years to come. Indeed, it will lead to “a generation lost” from COVID-19 related educational disruptions, which could result in this generation losing $17 trillion in lifetime wages and impacting the future United States economy. 

Addressing and reimagining workforce participation in the United States in the wake of COVID-19 is also critical to promoting Brain Capital. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 47 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs in 2021, spurred by COVID-19, ushering in the Great Resignation. Among workers who quit their job in 2021, the majority reported low pay, no opportunities for advancement, and feeling disrespected as the main reasons for leaving. These factors were especially felt by the low-income workforce. We must redesign and reimagine workforce participation. There is an urgent need for jobs that require brain and socio-emotional skills (e.g., the “brain skills” component of Brain Capital) but that do not necessarily require a college education. This would provide an important means to involve and eventually transition the low-skilled, low-income workforce into the labor markets of the future and into better quality jobs—enhancing individual and collective Brain Capital. Such initiatives particularly hold promise for regions with high rates of deep desperation and pre-mature death and may help address lack of hope and promote wellbeing and increased life expectancy. We must invest in brains to combat America’s crisis of despair.  

We urgently need innovation to address COVID-19’s effects on Brain Capital. These innovations must span clinical care, neuroscience research, youth mental health, education, workforce participation, and more. To recover from the economic implications of COVID-19, we must prioritize and invest in the brain with a coordinated approach across sectors of government, civil society, and industry. Indeed, Brain Capital is the road to recovery and is necessary to build a more resilient future. 

*Note: This article was adapted from a presentation of Eric Lenze, Professor and Incoming Chair of Psychiatry at Washington University of St Louis, to the U.S Congressional Neuroscience Caucus on Wednesday, May 18, 2022.