“People have been worried that COVID-19 survivors will be at greater risk of mental health problems, and our findings ... show this to be likely,” Paul Harrison, a professor of psychiatry at Britain’s Oxford University, told Reuters.
Researchers from the University of Oxford examined anonymised electronic health records of over 69 million U.S. patients, 62,354 of which were diagnosed with coronavirus from late January to August 1. Findings were published on Monday in The Lancet Psychiatry.
"Adverse mental health consequences of COVID-19, including anxiety and depression, have been widely predicted but not yet accurately measured," study authors wrote, adding that "reliable estimation...requires large, well-controlled cohort studies."
The team set out to find whether a coronavirus diagnosis was associated with higher rates of mental illness diagnoses thereafter. They were also interested in finding whether patients with a history of mental illness were at a higher risk of a COVID-19 diagnosis.
The team found that a coronavirus diagnosis was indeed linked to an 18% higher chance of any psychiatric diagnosis within 90 days. A coronavirus diagnosis in particular outweighed six other health problems -- including the flu, other respiratory tract infections and kidney stones -- in terms of incurring a first-time mental diagnosis.
The patients in the study had a higher chance of diagnoses for anxiety, depression and insomnia, study authors wrote, while also noting an increased risk of a dementia diagnosis, which signals a deterioration in brain functions like memory and thinking.
“I personally don’t find it all that surprising,” Dr. Wilfred Van Gorp, neuropsychologist and director of Cognitive Assessment Group in N.Y., told Fox News in an interview. “It’s not surprising in three ways, one is: when you have a medically ill group, there’s an increased prevalence of sadness, whether it rises to a level of clinical depression or not.”
“Second, with the pandemic, anybody who’s cooped up, isolated, you get fertile ground for psychiatric illnesses like depression," he continued. “People who see COVID-19 patients, there’s so many cognitive disorders… it reminds me of people who have post-concussion syndrome,” Van Gorp said, citing brain fog, neurocognitive conditions, depression and moodiness among coronavirus patients.
Further, the researchers' findings were upheld even after the team accounted for health issues that are known to heighten the risk for coronavirus, though socioeconomic factors may have played a role in the results, per the study. “That component is a great contributor to some of these findings, no question about it,” Van Gorp said; “certain socioeconomic factors that are not representative of the population as a whole… may help explain the findings.”
Also, coronavirus patients in need of ventilation may experience so-called "hypoxia," or an interruption of oxygen to the brain, Van Gorp explained. Consequences could range from memory problems to something as widespread as dementia.
"Dementia is a syndrome and doesn’t necessarily imply a gradual onset, like Alzheimer’s," Van Gorp said. "If somebody has a hypoxic episode that’s severe enough to cause widespread cognitive impairment, the onset would be abrupt."
"Although preliminary, our findings have implications for clinical services, and prospective cohort studies are warranted," study authors wrote.