Researchers at the University of Oxford (UK) collected electronic health record data from 81 million patients in the United States, putting together a group consisting of 236,379 individuals diagnosed with COVID-19. The group was then compared with three others: one of individuals who had had the flu, another with those who had had respiratory diseases such as pneumonia, and a third of people hospitalized for other health problems such as trauma of various kinds. .
As they explain in the study published in the scientific journal Lancet Psychiatry, the researchers organized the different groups by age, gender and health conditions, in order to have homogeneous and comparable data. Their analysis found a 44 percent higher risk of having a diagnosis for neurological and mental problems in patients recovering from COVID-19, compared to those who had had the flu. The risk was also 16 percent higher among those who had the disease caused by the coronavirus than among patients with other respiratory problems.
However, the study did not show a higher risk in the development of particular diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease which causes tremors and muscle spasms and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder that can occur after some viral infections and that involves neurological problems. due to an excessive response from the immune system.
Previous studies had reported the presence of mental problems attributable to particular diseases, especially if these require hospitalization. The new study reports that 33.6 percent of patients developed neuropsychiatric problems, with a 46.4 percent increased risk among COVID-19 patients who needed intensive care admission. The research is also one of the first to distinguish between psychiatric and neurological complications, offering some more elements to those dealing with the consequences of the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Overall, the researchers evaluated the incidence of 13 different types of neurological and psychiatric disorders, noting a higher incidence of anxiety states, mood changes, use of drugs and other substances. The incidence of more serious neurological complications was instead contained and mainly concerned patients recovering from severe forms of COVID-19.
Of all the patients considered, 0.6 percent had a cerebral hemorrhage, 2.1 percent had ischemia, and 0.7 percent developed dementia. The analysis of these data requires some extra caution, because it is very difficult to rule out that some subjects were not already at risk of developing similar health problems, regardless of COVID-19. The cases of hospitalization, especially in intensive care, mostly concern elderly patients or patients at risk for other particular clinical conditions.
The new research did not take into account the presence or absence of long-term effects of COVID-19 (the so-called “long COVID”), such as prolonged fatigue and pain that can affect the quality of life and consequently the psychological conditions of patients. . It should also be taken into account that patients with COVID-19 tend to be followed much more by doctors and this increases the chances of receiving diagnoses for other health problems, perhaps less obvious and neglected for a long time.
The study did not address the underlying causes of the neurological and psychiatric problems found, but in the press presentation of their work, the researchers speculated that the awareness of having COVID-19 may be a major stressor for some patients, and which can therefore contribute to the development of psychiatric disorders. Other research has focused on the effects of the coronavirus on the brain, detecting some mechanisms that could increase the risk of suffering from stroke or developing forms of dementia. However, studies are still ongoing and more in-depth analyzes will be needed.
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