Strong Link Between COVID-19 Infection & Mental Health Diagnoses – New Lancet Study 
One in three COVID-19 survivors received a neurological or psychiatric diagnosis within 6 months of infection with the virus.

A new study published by the journal Lancet Psychiatry estimates that one in three COVID-19 survivors received a neurological or psychiatric diagnosis within six months of infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. 

The study, conducted with researchers from both the United States and United Kingdom, analyzed the electronic health records of 236,379 COVID-19 patients primarily from the US, also comparing them to 105,579 patients diagnosed with the flu and 236,038 patients diagnosed with any respiratory tract infection (including flu). 

Overall, it was estimated that 34% of patients were diagnosed with a neurological or psychiatric disorder in the first six months after after a COVID diagnosis – with some 13% having a first-time ever diagnosis. Results also showed that the risks were greatest in, but not limited to, those with severe COVID-19.

Professor Paul Harrison, University of Oxford, lead author of study

Professor Paul Harrison, lead author of the study, from the University of Oxford, said: “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.”

And while countries around the world are now focused on vaccine rollouts, in hopes of achieving herd immunity, the study underlines how effects of COVID-19 will be felt for much longer, said Dr Jonathan Rogers, who was not involved in the study, from University College London (UCL), UK, in a separate comment on 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.”

Neurological and Mental Health Risk Increase Following COVID-19, When Compared to Flu or Respiratory Tract Infections, Says Study 

Additionally, neurological and psychiatrist outcomes were more frequent in COVID-19 patients than those patients who had suffered from the flu or respiratory tract infections –  suggesting the specific impact of COVID-19, the researchers found. 

After taking into account underlying health characteristics, such as age, sex, ethnicity, and existing health conditions, there was overall a 44% greater risk of neurological and mental health diagnoses after COVID-19 than after flu, and a 16% greater risk after COVID-19 than with other respiratory tract infections.

Ischaemic Stroke and Hemorrhage Risks Also Elevated
Associations between COVID-19 and ischemic stroke and intracranial hemorrhage is “concerning”

The risk of ischemic stroke and intracranial hemorrhage was elevated after COVID-19, with incidence of stroke increasing almost one in ten in patients with delirium (encephalopathy). Substance use disorders and insomnia were also more common. 

The study authors called the associations between COVID-19 and brain diseases and psychiatric disorders “concerning”, with additional research needed on disease severity and development. 

“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,” Dr Max Taquet, a co-author of the study, from the University of Oxford, said.

The results also point to a substantial impact on health systems and social care networks, given the potentially chronic nature of many of these conditions, added Harrison.

“Health care systems need to be resourced to deal with the anticipated need, both within primary and secondary care services,”  he advised. 

Will Mental Health Or Neurological Conditions Predominate Over Time?  
Patients who received a psychiatric or neurological diagnoses 6 months after COVID-19

In the wake of these findings, health experts also questioned if the severe, chronic, and less common mental health conditions linked to these findings will manifest more as neurological disorders or common mental disorders over time. 

While this study found that anxiety (17%) and mood disorders (14%) were the most common diagnoses, diagnosis of stroke and dementia were more common in patients who required hospitalization (83%), and even more so in those who required intensive treatment (46%) and in those with delirium (encephalopathy) during COVID-19 infection (62%). 

Writing in a linked comment to the study, Rogers, found the link with encephalopathy [delirium caused by a brain disease typically caused by infection, tumor or stroke] “important, even if the underlying mechanism turns out to be indirect.” 

But Rogers issued a note of caution about the apparent connections between encephalopathy and COVID-19, citing difficulties in distinguishing between psychotic disorders and delirium. 

On the one hand, the average age of patients with first-onset mental health disorders (53 years old) was on average much greater than those in the general population, where onset usually occurs in early adulthood. But, in some cases, however, that psychosis may have been exacerbated by pre-existing conditions unknown to the health-care provider, he argued. 

However, Rogers added that the study has important implications pointing “us towards the future, in both 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,” Rogers added, calling on countries with public health-care systems to “enable truly comprehensive national data to be available for research.” 

Image Credits: AMSA/Flickr, Flickr: Florey Institute of Neuroscience & Mental Health.

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