Have you ever heard of sleeping sickness? Many of us are familiar with the sleeping sickness that is caused by the tsetse fly, which injects parasites that lead to sleeping sickness; but there is another type, as well. From 1916 until 1930, there was a sleeping sickness—also called encephalitis lethargica—that affected nearly as many people as COVID-19 has to date—several million. People would become lethargic and sleepy, often in association with a viral illness. After an apparent recovery, unfortunately, many went on to develop Parkinson’s disease years later and were thus diagnosed with “post-encephalitic Parkinson’s disease.” This is a major concern for us neurologists today — will COVID-19, which we now know often includes neurological features such as loss of smell (anosmia), loss of taste (ageusia), confusion, headaches, paralysis, encephalitis, and other neurological features, also presage future neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s?

Well, the good news is that the COVID-19 virus, SARS-CoV-2, appears to be much less of a brain-focused (neurotropic) virus than encephalitis lethargica’s virus was. And although the sleeping sickness virus was never identified, recent studies suggest that it may have been a cousin of the polio virus, and thus quite different from the coronavirus. However, the occurrence of post-encephalitic Parkinson’s, along with the current COVID-19 pandemic, both serve to remind us how truly important resilience is — we know so much more about critical health parameters than was known 100 years ago that we should be able to minimize our likelihood of developing neurodegenerative diseases by paying attention to our health status with respect to inflammation, pathogens, gut health, toxins, insulin resistance, hormone and nutrient deficiencies, and vascular compromise. With attention to these critical health parameters, we should give ourselves the best chance to avoid post-COVID neurodegenerative diseases.

Please stay safe and well during the pandemic and continue to optimize your health.

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