Covid-19 raises risk of long-term brain injury, large US study finds

Nurses react as they treat a Covid-19 patient in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) at Milton Keynes University Hospital, amid the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic on Jan 20, 2021.
PHOTO: Reuters

CHICAGO – People who had Covid-19 are at higher risk for a host of brain injuries a year later compared with people who were never infected by the coronavirus, a finding that could affect millions of Americans, US researchers reported on Thursday.

The year-long study, published in Nature Medicine, assessed brain health across 44 different disorders using medical records without patient identifiers from millions of US veterans.

Brain and other neurological disorders occurred in seven per cent more of those who had been infected with Covid compared with a similar group of veterans who had never been infected. That translates into roughly 6.6 million Americans who had brain impairments linked with their Covid infections, the team said.

"The results show the devastating long-term effects of Covid-19," senior author Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly of Washington University School of Medicine said in a statement.

Al-Aly and colleagues at Washington University School of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System studied medical records from 154,000 US veterans who had tested positive for Covid from March 1, 2020 to Jan 15, 2021.

They compared these with records from 5.6 million patients who did not have Covid during the same time frame, and another group of 5.8 million people from the period just before the coronavirus arrived in the United States.

Al-Aly said prior studies looked at a narrower group of disorders, and were focused largely on hospitalised patients, whereas his study included both hospitalised and non-hospitalised patients.

Memory impairments, commonly referred to as brain fog, were the most common symptom. Compared with the control groups, people infected with Covid had a 77 per cent higher risk of developing memory problems.

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People infected with the virus also were 50 per cent more likely to have an ischemic stroke, which is caused by blood clots, compared with the never infected group.

Those who had Covid were 80 per cent more likely to have seizures, 43 per cent more likely to have mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, 35 per cent more likely to have headaches and 42 per cent more likely to suffer movement disorders, such as tremors, compared with the control groups.

Researchers said governments and health systems must devise plans for a post-Covid world.

"Given the colossal scale of the pandemic, meeting these challenges requires urgent and coordinated - but, so far, absent - global, national and regional response strategies," Al-Aly said.