One in three COVID-19 survivors diagnosed with brain or mental health disorder within 6 months of infection, study finds

A massive study conducted during the pandemic estimates 1 in 3 COVID-19 survivors were diagnosed with a neurological or psychiatric condition within six months of infection.

The study, published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal The Lancet Psychiatry, used more than 230,000 electronic health records of COVID-19 patients mostly in the U.S. looking at 14 different brain and mental health disorders.

Thirty-four percent of survivors were diagnosed with at least one of these conditions, with 13% of these people being their first recorded neurological or psychiatric diagnosis. Mental health diagnoses were most common among patients, with 17% diagnosed with anxiety and 14% diagnosed with a mood disorder.

Although neurological diagnoses were more uncommon, they were more prevalent in patients who had been seriously ill during a COVID-19 infection. For example, 7% of patients who were admitted to intensive care had a stroke and 2% were diagnosed with dementia.

“It shows the toll that COVID takes is not just with the (disease itself), but also with the aftermath of the condition, which can be extremely complicated, involving not only the brain but other organs in the body as well,” said Dr. William Li, president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the study of abnormal blood vessel growth.

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Study authors also looked at about 100,000 flu patients and more than 230,000 patients diagnosed with a respiratory tract infection over the same time period and found neurological and psychiatric diagnoses were more common in COVID-19 patients.

There was a 44% greater risk of brain or mental health disorder diagnoses after COVID-19 than after the flu, and a 16% greater risk than with respiratory tract infections, according to the study.

It is possible coronavirus infection could lead to anxiety or depression, as these conditions have been associated with inflammation typically seen in COVID-19, said Julie Walsh-Messinger, assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Dayton. But these psychiatric disorders also could stem from the stresses of the pandemic itself.

“We’re seeing higher rates of depression and anxiety across the board regardless of (COVID-19 infection) or not,” she said. “It’s hard to tease apart how much of it is general stress-induced anxiety or depression because of lack of ability to socialize, lack of ability to engage in activities that one normally enjoys, fear about the future and how much of it is specific to the disease progress.”

Even so, the study is an important first step in what clinicians can expect from their patients who have recovered from COVID-19, she added. 

The size of the study also demonstrates how the long-term effects of COVID-19 can impact a country’s health care system even after the disease is gone, said lead author Paul Harrison, a professor at the University of Oxford in the U.K.

“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,” he said. “Health care systems need to be resourced to deal with the anticipated need.”

And with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting about 60,000 new COVID-19 cases per day, the need for health care services post-COVID-19 infection could escalate, said Noah Greenspan, a cardiopulmonary physical therapist and founder of the Pulmonary Wellness Foundation in New York City.

“Even if at this moment right now we were to shut off the valve and nobody would ever get infected with COVID, there are still whole groups of people who have already been affected,” he said. “It’s like a fire has been in our house and even if the fire is out and we don’t have any new damage, we have to deal with this progression of symptoms people are experiencing for years to come.”

Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT. 

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