According to a major study, people who are highly stressed, anxious, lonely or depressed before contracting the coronavirus are more prone to a long Covid than those in good mental health.
A Harvard analysis of health data from nearly 55,000 U.S. volunteers, most of whom were women, found that high levels of psychological distress prior to Covid infection increased the risk of long-term illness by 32% -46% .
The findings highlight the urgent need to support people with mental health conditions and the importance of building more widely the resilience of mental health in the population to reduce the impact of the long-standing Covid.
“Depression, stress and loneliness are very, very common, and the fact that they equitably increase the risk of a long Covid is remarkable,” said Andrea Roberts, senior research fellow at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. “The associations were stronger with these risk factors than with other things we know have long been associated with Covid, such as obesity, hypertension and asthma.”
A sizeable minority of people who contract Covid develop long-term, often debilitating ailments such as fatigue, wheezing, brain fog and heart problems. About one in six middle-aged people and one in 13 young adults in the UK have symptoms that persist for more than three months. The causes are thought to be multiple, ranging from abnormal immune responses to damaged tissue and residual viruses lurking in the body.
While the relationship between mental well-being and the long Covid is unclear, psychological distress can drive chronic inflammation and disrupt the immune system, potentially making people more vulnerable to the long Covid, the researchers note in JAMA Psychiatry.
The Harvard team used questionnaires to rank the mental well-being of 54,960 U.S. volunteers from the Nursing Health Studies and the Growing Up Today study. Most of the volunteers were white nurses between the ages of 40 and 70. In April 2020, none had tested positive for Covid, but in the following year more than 3,000 contracted the virus and registered their symptoms.
Those who scored higher on depression, stress, anxiety, loneliness and worry before contracting Covid were more likely to report symptoms that lasted more than a month. Such ongoing symptoms were 49% more likely in people with two or more forms of psychological distress than in those who did not. A similar finding was seen in people whose symptoms lasted at least two months.
All symptoms of Covid, aside from coughing and problems with smell or taste, were more common in those who were distressed before contracting the virus. Depending on the type of distress, volunteers were 15% to 51% more likely to say long Covid harmed their daily lives than those without mental health problems before testing positive.
The findings do not mean that mental health problems cause a long Covid: over 40% of those who developed a long Covid in the study showed no signs of distress prior to infection.
Mental health is known to affect some diseases. Stress has been linked to increased susceptibility to common colds and other respiratory infections. Last year, researchers from London reported poor pre-pandemic mental health increased the risk of long-term Covid, as well as being older, female, overweight, in poor general health and have asthma. A separate study of people with multiple sclerosis found that those with anxiety or depression took longer to recover from Covid.
Siwen Wang, a Harvard epidemiologist and first author of the study, said it’s important for people with mental health problems to have good access to high-quality care. “Future research should investigate whether better management of psychological distress can prevent people from getting Covid or improve their symptoms,” he said.
Claire Steves, a professor of aging and health at King’s College London, who was part of a team last year that found a link between mental health and long Covid, said the Harvard study highlighted the need for create support for vulnerable people and improve mental conditions. resilience of the general population. “It is important to state that this association does not mean that previous mental health problems cause a long Covid, rather that mental health problems increase the vulnerability of individuals, due to the reduced reserve for physiological changes to manifest in daily life.”
Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “People with severe mental illness are at greater risk of developing a range of physical health problems, including long-term Covid. We are still learning about the impact of the virus on people’s physical and mental health, but we know that Covid can cause debilitating symptoms for a long time. People with long-term Covid need to have access to the health care they need, including an adequate provision of specialist mental health.
“It is also imperative that research into the impact of long-standing Covid in people with pre-existing mental illness continues if we are to ensure the best standard of care for patients across the board.”