Increasing Number of Americans Report Cognitive Challenges: Difficulty Thinking and Remembering

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The Census Bureau’s recent data reveals a concerning trend among Americans, with an unprecedented surge in reported serious cognitive problems over the past 15 years. The catalyst for this rise seems to be the onset of the pandemic, leading to an estimated one million more working-age adults experiencing “serious difficulty” with thinking processes.

Strikingly, the number of adults aged 18 to 64 reporting severe cognitive issues now matches those facing challenges in mobility, a notable shift since the bureau began its monthly inquiries in the early 2000s. Notably, it is the younger demographic that is predominantly steering this troubling trend.

Economist Richard Deitz, scrutinizing the data, attributes much of this surge to long Covid, emphasizing that such drastic increases typically don’t occur abruptly. The Census Bureau’s monthly survey gauges memory and concentration issues, categorizing respondents as disabled if they acknowledge problems in these areas. The rise in reported cognitive challenges aligns with the widely recognized “brain fog” experienced by many long-haul Covid sufferers.

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The data suggests that nearly two-thirds of the overall increase in reported disabilities among 18 to 64-year-olds are related to cognitive limitations. Alongside this, estimates for vision disabilities and difficulties in basic errands have also risen. Older working-age Americans, in particular, have seen a reversal in the declining trend of reported disability rates.

The prevalence of cognitive issues corresponds with a common symptom of long Covid – persistent “brain fog.” Studies indicate that 20 to 30 percent of individuals recovering from Covid exhibit cognitive impairment months later, ranging from mild to severe. The physical and cognitive toll is significant, with brain injuries and clear biological changes observed in some long Covid patients.

Notably, younger adults appear to be more affected by cognitive issues, and long Covid manifests differently across age groups. While older adults may experience memory-related deficits, younger cohorts often grapple with attention and concentration problems, along with severe fatigue or pain impacting their cognitive functions.

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Despite the rise in cognitive challenges, employment data for working-age Americans with disabilities reveals a steady number of unemployed or out-of-labor-force individuals. Remote work opportunities and a tight job market might explain an increase in employed individuals with disabilities, including those newly classified as disabled during the pandemic.

Experts suggest that the increase in reported cognitive disability for younger adults had been gradually occurring before the pandemic, possibly influenced by rising ADHD and autism diagnoses. The pandemic’s impact on mental health, with increased isolation, higher depression rates, and heightened prescription of psychiatric medications, likely contributes to the cognitive challenges reported.

The Census data, reliant on self-reporting, might also reflect a shift in how people perceive their cognition, even without substantial changes to their health. Increased awareness and acceptance of neurodiversity, coupled with online discussions and advertisements for ADHD medications, could influence individuals to recognize and report cognitive difficulties.

In light of these concerning trends, experts stress the importance of society taking this issue seriously, understanding the impact on affected individuals, and exploring potential interventions.

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