Herpes Simplex Virus and Cognitive Impairment

March 29, 2019
Read all about cognitive impairment and its relationship with the simplex herpes virus in this article!

Researchers estimate that approximately 417 million people under the age of 50 have the herpes simplex virus. Now, what does this have to do with cognitive impairment? Although you may not believe it, they’re related. One study reports that certain chronic viral infections, including the herpes simplex virus, can lead to cognitive impairment in healthy adults.

Herpes is an infection caused by a virus. Herpes simplex virus type 1 is what causes what we commonly know as cold sores around the mouth or on the face. Herpes simplex virus type 2, on the other hand, causes genital herpes. This sexually transmitted disease affects the genitals, buttocks, or anus. Other herpes infections can affect the eyes and the skin, as well as other body parts.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine conducted a study which was published in the journal Alzheimer’s Disease and Associated Disorders. They concluded that there’s a correlation between certain chronic viruses, including the herpes simplex virus type 2, and cognitive impairment. The study analyzed more than 1,000 adults over the age of 65 who underwent cognitive evaluations annually for five years.

Head-shaped trees representing cognitive impairment.

Cognitive impairment and its relationship with the simplex herpes virus

For the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cognition refers to skills such as remembering, learning new things, planning, concentrating, or making decisions. When someone experiences cognitive impairment, they often have trouble with these skills.

This affects their everyday lives. Thus, it’s possible that an individual with cognitive impairment can’t take care of themselves or perform daily tasks, such as preparing their own meals or managing their money, among other things.

As previously mentioned, this study links the herpes simplex virus with cognitive impairment. The researchers established that previous cross-sectional studies had already discovered a relationship between exposure to certain viruses and cognitive impairment.

These viruses include cytomegalovirus, the herpes simplex virus 2 (genital herpes), and Toxoplasma gondii (widely known as the parasite found in cat feces). The researchers state that perhaps these viruses trigger some neurotoxic effects.

After looking for signs of viral exposure in blood samples, the researchers discovered a relationship between the exposure to these viruses and age-related cognitive impairment. We must note that, although the results provide reasons for concern, they didn’t discover a great association between herpes simplex virus type 1, which is the type of herpes associated with cold sores, and cognitive impairment.

Prevention of genital herpes

The cognitive impairment effects of herpes simplex type 2, as well as the other two mentioned viruses, makes prevention really important.

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease that can be transmitted through skin contact or through oral/genital fluids (secretions). Although this disease is treatable, it’s safer to use condoms to prevent it in the first place.

The main issue is the fact that a person can have genital herpes long before showing symptoms. Also, the intensity of the symptoms may vary. This is why preventive measures are paramount.

Early warning signs of cognitive impairment

It’s essential to bear in mind that it’s one thing to suffer from a mild cognitive impairment and quite another to suffer from dementia.

People with mild cognitive impairment are more forgetful than normal for their age. However, they don’t experience other cognitive problems associated with dementia, such as disorientation in familiar places.

Mundane tasks such as paying bills, shopping, or preparing meals can be a challenge for people with mild cognitive impairment. They may also need more time to do easy tasks and tend to make more mistakes. In general, they’re able to live independently, but may be less socially active.

An elderly lady suffering from cognitive impairment due to simplex herpes virus.

In general, a person is suffering from mild cognitive impairment if they meet the following criteria:

  • A friend, family member, doctor, or even the person in question notices memory changes.
  • The person is experiencing more difficulties in one or more cognitive areas such as memory, attention, and language than expected for their age and academic background. Difficulty learning and retaining new information is common in patients with mild cognitive impairment who develop Alzheimer-related dementia.
  • The person has difficulty performing complex tasks, such as paying bills, preparing a meal, or going shopping. They may take more time than usual to do them, be less efficient, and make more mistakes than they used to. Even so, they’re still independent but need minimal assistance.
  • There’s no evidence of significant impairment in social or occupational functioning.
  • There must be objective evidence of progressive cognitive impairment over time. Cognitive tests can assess the degree of impairment.

Formal cognitive tests that evaluate long and short-term memory can help identify mild cognitive impairment. Doctors can also evaluate a person’s cognitive function using informal techniques. In any case, if there are suspicious signs, it’s vital to rule out conditions that could explain the impairment in basic psychological processes such as memory.