SAN FRANCISCO -- After over two and a half years of COVID research, scientists are seeing the first data points that prove a dramatic change in human organs after a COVID infection.
"You can start thinking about getting COVID as almost as an accelerant to aging. The viral infection accelerates the aging process in people," said Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, director of the Clinical Epidemiology Center at Washington University in St. Louis and the chief of research and education service at Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System.
Dr. Al-Aly gathered data from millions of people across the country. Their studies on kidney outcomes in long COVID, long COVID in the brain and long COVID in the heart had similar patterns.
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All pointing to multiple human organs aging faster after COVID. The majority happening among people who were hospitalized but also some with mild COVID symptoms.
"Almost by three to four years in the span of just one," said Dr. Al-Aly and added, "What we have seen is that people are losing about three to four percent kidney function in the year that follows that infection. That usually happens with aging. Three to four years of aging."
We took these findings to Dr. Michael Peluso, infectious disease specialist at UCSF. His team was one of the first in the country to begin long COVID research in April of 2020.
"Dr. Al-Aly group at the VA in St. Louis has been really important in trying to frame the issues of what people experience after they have COVID. Particularly the effects on the organ system after somebody has COVID," said Dr. Peluso and added, "Now, what we are trying to do is actually figure out what is the biology of what causes those long term effects."
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Dr. Peluso said his team has an idea of why some organs may be experiencing aging or injury after COVID.
"Some of the theories for what may causing long COVID symptoms include persistence of the virus, so instead of the virus coming and going - it sticks around, inflammation, auto-immune problems. Changes in the microbiome. The good bacteria that are in our bodies," said Peluso.
Even though more years of data are necessary, Dr. Al Aly believes this increased aging process will eventually stop.
"My hunch from the data and also my hope that this would really eventually flatten out and there are some early indications that this really may be the case that the risk or the kidney function decline really flattens out with time," said Dr. Al-Aly.
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