A growing body of research shows a relationship between COVID-19 and mental health or neurological issues. And now a new large study investigating the potential after-effects of COVID-19 found that about a third of people diagnosed with the infection will also be diagnosed with some type of neuropsychiatric condition within six months.
For the study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, a group of researchers at the University of Oxford started with a pool of health records for 81,000,000 patients in the U.S. Of the 236,379 people in that sample who were diagnosed with COVID-19, 33.6% of those people were diagnosed with a neurological or psychiatric condition of some kind within six months. (It's important to note here, though, that was the first diagnosis of that kind for only 12.8% of patients.) The researchers also found that COVID-19 patients were more likely to experience these issues than patients in the sample pool diagnosed with other respiratory infections, like the flu.
The researchers looked at the incidence of 14 different neuropsychiatric conditions. That includes mood disorders, anxiety (which 17.4% of patients developed), substance use disorder (found in 6.6% of the patients), and insomnia (seen in 5.4% of the patients). It also includes medical emergencies like ischemic stroke (found in 2.1% of patients) and neurological diseases like dementia (seen in 0.7% of the patients).
Not all COVID-19 patients were equally likely to develop one of these conditions, however. Generally speaking, people with more severe cases of COVID-19 (requiring hospitalization or intensive care) were more likely to experience issues. For instance, nearly half (46.4%) of patients who went to the ICU would develop a neuropsychiatric illness within six months (with 25.8% of them receiving such a diagnosis for the first time). Patients who were diagnosed with encephalopathy, a severe brain condition, during their illness were at the highest risk (62.3%).
The authors can't say for certain that COVID-19 directly caused all of those conditions. But this study does suggest that the infection—and perhaps the trauma of surviving a life-threatening disease we're still just beginning to understand in the midst of a global pandemic—can contribute to some of them.
This recent study lines up with what we already know about the potential for COVID-19 to cause neurological issues and other lingering symptoms. Another recent study, published in October 2020, looked at more than 500 hospitalized COVID-19 patients and found that neurological symptoms were common among them. Of those hospitalized participants, 82% experienced neurological symptoms by the end of their sickness, ranging in severity from headaches and dizziness to encephalopathy.
And we know that some people who experience lingering COVID-19 symptoms (colloquially referred to as long-haul COVID or long COVID) report new symptoms coming on that they didn't have while sick, including neurological issues like memory loss, difficulty concentrating, brain fog, and sleep disorders, as well as mental health issues such as anxiety.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions here about the relationship between COVID-19 and mental health, as well as how the infection could cause these long-term issues. What we do know is that, when you're dealing with lingering symptoms or new issues after a COVID-19 infection, it's crucial to get both medical and emotional support. Talk to your doctor if you're experiencing lasting symptoms after having COVID-19 to find out what your long-term care options look like. And consider looking into a COVID-19 survivors support group, where people can share their stories, get social support, and swap resources to help cope with the lingering impacts of the disease.
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