One in three people who overcame COVID-19 were diagnosed with a neurological or psychiatric condition six months on, the largest study so far published on the mental toll of the virus on survivors showed.
The study, published yesterday in The Lancet Psychiatry journal, proved that COVID-19 survivors were significantly more likely to develop brain conditions than those who had other respiratory tract infections, the authors said.
Studying the health records of more than 230,000 poeople who had recovered from COVID-19, the researchers found that 34 percent were diagnosed with a neurological or psychiatric condition within six months.
The most common conditions were anxiety (17 percent of patients) and mood disorders (14 percent), the study showed.
For 13 percent of survivors, the disorders were their first diagnosis of a mental health issue. Incidence of neurological disorders such as brain haemorrhage (0.6 percent), stroke (2.1 percent) and dementia (0.7 percent) was lower overall than for psychiatric disorders, but the risk for brain disorders was generally higher for those who had severe COVID-19, the study showed.
The authors also examined data from more than 100,000 people diagnosed with influenza and more than 236,000 diagnosed with other respiratory tract infections.
They found that there was a 44 percent greater risk of neurological and mental health diagnoses after COVID-19 than after flu, and a 16 percent higher risk than after a respiratory tract infection.
Paul Harrison, a researcher at the University of Oxford and lead author of the study, said that while the individual risk of neurological and psychiatric conditions after COVID-19 was small, the overall effect across the global population could prove to be substantial.
“Many of these conditions are chronic,” he said. “As a result, healthcare systems need to be resourced to deal with the anticipated need, both within primary and secondary care services.”
Patients hospitalized with severe COVID-19 were at great risk of developing long-term conditions, the study showed.
For example, 46 percent of patients who needed intensive care were diagnosed with neurological or psychiatric conditions within six months of recovery, it showed.
The study also showed that 2.7 percent of people needing intensive care experienced subsequent brain haemorrhage, compared with 0.3 percent of people who were not hospitalized.
Nearly 7 percent of those needing intensive care had a stroke, compared with 1.3 percent of people who experienced milder COVID-19 infections.
Writing in a linked comment article, Jonathan Rogers, a researcher at University College London, said that further research was needed on the long-term neurological and psychiatric outcomes among people who had COVID-19.
“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,” said Rogers, who was not involved in the study.
“It is clear from this study that the impact COVID-19 is having on individuals mental health can be severe,” said Lea Milligan, CEO of MQ Mental Health, a research group. “This is contributing to the already rising levels of mental illness and requires further, urgent research.”
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