OXFORD, United Kingdom — For many COVID-19 patients, surviving the virus is just the beginning of their recovery. For some, “long haul” symptoms can leave survivors without the sense of taste or smell for weeks and even months. Now, researchers say another disturbing pattern is emerging among those recovering from COVID. A new study reveals one in three people will develop a neurological or psychiatric condition up to six months after their infection.
The study of more than 235,000 coronavirus patients finds 34 percent of the survivors receive a diagnosis for mental health issues or even more serious neurological disorders later on. The most common issues include anxiety (17%) and mood disorders (14%). Study authors also encountered more life-threatening conditions such as stroke and dementia onset in rare cases. Specifically, seven percent of COVID patients entering intensive care went on to suffer a stroke. Nearly two percent were later diagnosed with dementia.
Researchers say the results far exceed the number of issues doctors see in patients surviving the flu or respiratory infections.
“These are real-world data from a large number of patients. They confirm the high rates of psychiatric diagnoses after COVID-19, and show that serious disorders affecting the nervous system (such as stroke and dementia) occur too. While the latter are much rarer, they are significant, especially in those who had severe COVID-19,” says Professor Paul Harrison from the University of Oxford in a media release.
“Although the individual risks for most disorders are small, the effect across the whole population may be substantial for health and social care systems due to the scale of the pandemic and that many of these conditions are chronic. As a result, health care systems need to be resourced to deal with the anticipated need, both within primary and secondary care services.”
Growing evidence of COVID-19 affecting the brain
Study authors note there has been growing concern that the pandemic is increasing the likelihood of mental trauma. Previous studies discovered connections between COVID-19 and “brain fog,” PTSD, and depression — even in those without the virus.
Most studies have examined these issues within the first three months of infection. Researchers say this is the first report to look at the long-term risks for neurological and psychiatric problems due to COVID.
Study authors looked at data on 236,379 COVID survivors older than 10 years-old infected between January and December 2020. The team then compared the information to 105,579 patients with the flu and 236,038 patients with any respiratory tract infections including influenza.
The results reveal people with COVID are 44 percent more likely to receive neurological or mental health diagnoses than flu survivors. They’re also 16 percent more likely to deal with these issues than people with a respiratory tract infection. Despite greater overall risk, researchers did not see any increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease or Guillain-Barré syndrome.
What conditions could COVID survivors face?
Within six months of their infection, researchers also found seven percent of COVID patients developed substance misuse disorders. Another five percent started experiencing insomnia.
Study authors note the chances of serious neurological trauma was lower. Just 0.6 percent of survivors suffered a brain hemorrhage, 2.1 percent had a ischemic stroke, and 0.7 percent developed dementia. Of the 34 percent of COVID patients dealing with these problems six months later, 13 percent received a neurological or psychiatric diagnosis for the first time.
“Our results indicate that brain diseases and psychiatric disorders are more common after COVID-19 than after flu or other respiratory infections, even when patients are matched for other risk factors. We now need to see what happens beyond six months. The study cannot reveal the mechanisms involved, but does point to the need for urgent research to identify these, with a view to preventing or treating them,” says Oxford’s Dr. Max Taquet.
“[This] study points us towards the future, both in its methods and implications. Researchers need to be able to observe and anticipate the neurological and psychiatric outcomes of future emerging health threats by use of massive, international, real-world clinical data,” adds Dr. Jonathan Rogers, who did not take part in the study. “Sadly, many of the disorders identified in this study tend to be chronic or recurrent, so we can anticipate that the impact of COVID-19 could be with us for many years.”
The study appears in The Lancet Psychiatry.