COVID increases risk of long-term brain injury, large US study shows

Nurses respond as they treat a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit of Milton Keynes University Hospital in Britain amid the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, Jan. 20, 2021. People who had COVID-19 walk a higher risk of a large number of brain injuries one year later compared to people who were never infected with the corona virus. (Toby Melville, Reuters)

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CHICAGO — People who had COVID-19 are at greater risk for a large number of brain injuries a year later compared to people who have never been infected by the coronavirus, a finding that could affect millions of Americans, US researchers reported Thursday.

The one-year study, published in Nature Medicine, evaluated brain health in 44 different conditions using medical records without patient IDs from millions of U.S. veterans.

Brain and other neurological disorders occurred in 7% more of those infected with COVID compared to a similar group of veterans who had never been infected. That translates to about 6.6 million Americans with brain disorders related to their COVID infections, the team said.

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

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

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

Al-Aly said previous studies looked at a smaller group of conditions and focused largely on hospitalized patients, while his study included both hospitalized and non-hospitalized patients.

Memory impairment, commonly called brain fog, was the most common symptom. Compared to the control groups, people infected with COVID had a 77% higher risk of developing memory problems.

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

Those who had COVID were 80% more likely to have seizures, 43% more likely to have mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression, 35% more likely to have headaches, and 42% more likely to have movement disorders, such as tremors, compared to the control groups.

Researchers said governments and health systems should come up with plans for a post-COVID world.

“Given the colossal scale of the pandemic, addressing these challenges requires urgent and coordinated — but as yet absent — global, national and regional response strategies,” Al-Aly said.

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