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COVID-19 increases risks of neurological problems

Written by | 30 Sep 2022 | COVID-19

Persons infected with the COVID-19 virus are at an increased risk of developing  neurological conditions in the first year after infection, researchers reported on Sept. 22 in Nature Medicine.

“Our study provides a comprehensive assessment of the long-term neurologic consequences of COVID-19,” said senior author Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, Director of the Clinical Epidemiology Center, and the Chief of Research and Education Service at Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System. “Past studies have examined a narrower set of neurological outcomes, mostly in hospitalized patients. We evaluated 44 brain and other neurologic disorders among both non-hospitalized and hospitalized patients, including those admitted to the intensive care unit. The results show the devastating long-term effects of COVID-19. These are part and parcel of long COVID. The virus is not always as benign as some people think it is.”

Using a database from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the researchers created a data set on 154,000 people who had tested positive for COVID-19 sometime from March 1, 2020, through Jan. 15, 2021, and who had survived the first 30 days after infection.

Using standard statistical tools, they compared neurological outcomes in the COVID-19 data set with two uninfected cohorts or “control” groups, one group of more than 5.6 million uninfected subjects who did not have COVID-19 during the same time period and a group of more than 5.8 million uninfected subjects whose data came from before the virus had spread internationally.

The investigators evaluated the data for brain health in each group, covering a period of one year. They found that neurological conditions appeared in 7% more subjects with COVID-19 compared to uninfected subjects.

These conditions included ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke, cognition and memory disorders, peripheral nervous system disorders, episodic disorders (for example, migraine and seizures), extrapyramidal and movement disorders, mental health disorders, musculoskeletal disorders, sensory disorders, Guillain-Barré syndrome, and encephalitis or encephalopathy.

Notably subjects who contracted the virus were at a 77% increased risk of developing memory problems

Infected subjects were 50% more likely to suffer from an ischemic stroke. They were 80% more likely to suffer from epilepsy or seizures, 43% more likely to develop anxiety or depression, 35% more likely to develop mild to severe headaches and 42% more likely to develop movement disorders, including involuntary muscle contractions, tremors and other Parkinson’s-like symptoms.

Infected subjects were also 30% more likely to develop eye problems such as blurred vision, dryness and retinal inflammation. They were 22% more likely to develop tinnitus.

The authors concluded, “Taken together, our results provide evidence of increased risk of long-term neurologic disorders in people who had COVID-19.”

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