LONDON (Reuters) – One in three COVID-19 survivors in a study of more than 230,000 patients, mostly Americans, was diagnosed with a brain or psychiatric disorder within six months, suggesting the pandemic could cause a wave of mental and neurological problems, the scientists said. on Tuesday.
The researchers who conducted the analysis said it was unclear how the virus was related to psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression, but that these were the most common diagnoses among the 14 disorders they analyzed.
Post-COVID cases of stroke, dementia and other neurological disorders were rarer, the researchers said, but were still significant, especially in those with severe COVID-19.
“Although the individual risks for most disorders are small, the effect on the entire population can be substantial,” said Paul Harrison, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Oxford who co-led the work.
Max Taquet, also an Oxford psychiatrist who worked with Harrison, said the study was unable to examine the biological or psychological mechanisms involved, but said urgent research is needed to identify them “with a view to preventing or treating them.”
Health experts are increasingly concerned about the evidence of increased risks for brain and mental health disorders among COVID-19 survivors. An earlier study by the same researchers found last year that 20% of COVID-19 survivors were diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder within three months.
The new findings, published in the Lancet Psychiatry, analyzed the health records of 236,379 COVID-19 patients, mostly from the United States, and found that 34% had been diagnosed with neurological or psychiatric illnesses within six months.
The disorders were significantly more common in COVID-19 patients than in comparison groups of people who recovered from the flu or other respiratory infections during the same time period, the scientists said, suggesting that COVID-19 had a specific impact.
Anxiety, at 17%, and mood disorders, at 14%, were the most common and did not appear to be related to how mild or severe the patient’s COVID-19 infection had been.
However, among those who had been admitted to intensive care with severe COVID-19, 7% suffered a stroke within six months and nearly 2% were diagnosed with dementia.
Independent experts said the findings were concerning.
“This is a very important document. It confirms beyond any reasonable doubt that COVID-19 affects both the brain and the mind in equal measure, ”said Simon Wessely, chair of psychiatry at King’s College London.
“The impact that COVID-19 is having on people’s mental health can be severe,” said Lea Milligan, executive director of the research charity MQ Mental Health. “This is contributing to the already rising levels of mental illness and requires more urgent research.”
Reporting by Kate Kelland, Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise