Nurses react as they treat a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at the University Hospital in Milton Keynes in Britain amid the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, January 20, 2021. People with COVID -19 are at higher risk for a host of brain damage a year later compared to people who have never been infected with the coronavirus. (Toby Melville, Reuters)
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CHICAGO — People with COVID-19 are at higher risk of suffering a host of brain damage a year later than people who have never been infected with the coronavirus, a finding that could affect millions of Americans, US researchers reported Thursday.
The year-long study, published in Nature Medicine, assessed brain health in 44 different disorders using medical records without patient identifiers from millions of US veterans.
Brain disorders and other neurological disorders occurred in 7% more of those who had been infected with COVID compared to a similar group of veterans who had never been infected. That translates to about 6.6 million Americans who had brain impairments related to their COVID infections, the team said.
“The results show the devastating long-term effects of COVID-19,” lead author Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly of the University of Washington School of Medicine said in a statement.
Al-Aly and colleagues at Washington University School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System studied the medical records of 154,000 US veterans who tested positive for COVID from March 1, 2020 through January 15, 2021.
They compared them to the records of 5.6 million patients who did not have COVID during the same period, and to another group of 5.8 million people from the period just before the arrival of the coronavirus in the United States.
Al-Aly said earlier studies looked at a smaller group of disorders and largely focused on hospitalized patients, whereas his study included both hospitalized and outpatients.
Memory impairment, commonly known as brain fog, was the most common symptom. Compared to control groups, people infected with COVID had a 77% higher risk of developing memory problems.
Those 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 issues, such as anxiety or depression, 35% more likely to have headaches and 42% more likely to suffer from movement disorders, such as tremors, compared to control groups.
The researchers said governments and health systems must devise plans for a post-COVID world.
“Given the colossal scale of the pandemic, addressing these challenges requires urgent and coordinated – but, so far, absent – response strategies at global, national and regional levels,” Al-Aly said.