Connect with us
  • Elysium


COVID-19 ‘increases risk of neurological conditions’

Study reveals stroke, cognitive and memory issues and depression all more common within 12 months of infection



COVID-19 increases the risk of long-term brain problems, with strokes, seizures, cognitive and movement disorders among problems that develop in first year after infection. 

New research has shown the heightened risk of developing a range of neurological conditions, as well as depression, anxiety, balance and coordination difficulties, with symptoms likened to those associated with Parkinson’s disease. 

COVID-19 has contributed to more than 40 million new cases of neurological disorders worldwide, the research from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care system

“Our study provides a comprehensive assessment of the long-term neurologic consequences of COVID-19,” said senior author Dr Ziyad Al-Aly, a clinical epidemiologist at Washington University. 

“Past studies have examined a narrower set of neurological outcomes, mostly in hospitalised patients. We evaluated 44 brain and other neurologic disorders among both non-hospitalised and hospitalised patients, including those admitted to the intensive care unit. 

“The results show the devastating long-term effects of COVID-19. These are part and parcel of Long COVID. The virus is not always as benign as some people think it is.

“We’re seeing brain problems in previously healthy individuals and those who have had mild infections. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old, female or male, or what your race is. It doesn’t matter if you smoked or not, or if you had other unhealthy habits or conditions.”

Few people in the study were vaccinated for COVID-19 because the vaccines were not yet widely available during the time span of the study, from March 2020 through to early January 2021. The data also predates Delta, Omicron and other COVID variants.

A previous study led by Al-Aly found that vaccines slightly reduce — by about 20 per cent — the risk of long-term brain problems. 

“It is definitely important to get vaccinated but also important to understand that they do not offer complete protection against these long-term neurologic disorders,” Dr Al-Aly said.

The researchers analysed about 14 million de-identified medical records in a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the nation’s largest integrated health-care system.

They created a controlled data set of 154,000 people who had tested positive for COVID-19 sometime from March 1, 2020, to January 15, 2021, and who had survived the first 30 days after infection. 

Statistical modelling was used to compare neurological outcomes in the COVID-19 data set with two other groups of people not infected with the virus:  a control group of more than 5.6 million patients who did not have COVID-19 during the same time frame; and a control group of more than 5.8 million people from March 2018 to December 31, 2019, long before the virus infected and killed millions across the globe.

Neurological conditions occurred in seven per cent more people with COVID-19 compared with those who had not been infected with the virus. Extrapolating this percentage based on the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., that translates to roughly 6.6 million people who have experienced brain impairments associated with the virus.

Memory problems — often known as ‘brain fog’ — are one of the most common brain-related, long-COVID symptoms. Compared with those in the control groups, people who contracted the virus were at a 77 per cent increased risk of developing memory problems. 

“These problems resolve in some people but persist in many others,” Dr Al-Aly said. 

“At this point, the proportion of people who get better versus those with long-lasting problems is unknown.”

The researchers also noted an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease among those infected with the virus. There were two more cases of Alzheimer’s per 1,000 people with COVID-19 compared with the control groups. 

“It’s unlikely that someone who has had COVID-19 will just get Alzheimer’s out of the blue,” Dr Al-Aly said. 

“Alzheimer’s takes years to manifest. But what we suspect is happening is that people who have a predisposition to Alzheimer’s may be pushed over the edge by COVID, meaning they’re on a faster track to develop the disease. It’s rare but concerning.”

Also compared to the control groups, people who had the virus were 50 per cent more likely to suffer from an ischemic stroke, which strikes when a blood clot or other obstruction blocks an artery’s ability to supply blood and oxygen to the brain. 

Ischemic strokes account for the majority of all strokes, and can lead to difficulty speaking, cognitive confusion, vision problems, the loss of feeling on one side of the body, permanent brain damage, paralysis and death.

“There have been several studies by other researchers that have shown, in mice and humans, that SARS-CoV-2 can attack the lining of the blood vessels and then then trigger a stroke or seizure,” Dr Al-Aly said. 

“It helps explain how someone with no risk factors could suddenly have a stroke.”

Overall, compared to the uninfected, people who had COVID-19 were 80 per cent more likely to experience epilepsy or seizures, 43 per cent more likely to develop mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression, 35 per cent more likely to experience mild to severe headaches, and 42 per cent more likely to encounter movement disorders. The latter includes involuntary muscle contractions, tremors and other Parkinson’s-like symptoms.

“Our study adds to this growing body of evidence by providing a comprehensive account of the neurologic consequences of COVID-19 one year after infection,” Dr Al-Aly said.

“Given the colossal scale of the pandemic, meeting these challenges requires urgent and coordinated — but, so far, absent — global, national and regional response strategies.”