Image of depressed or anxious older adult with head in hands

The risk of neurological disorders related to COVID-19 remains significantly high for at least two years after infection, while psychiatric symptoms fade within about two months, a large new study from the United Kingdom has found. 

Investigators, from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, followed psychiatric and neurological outcomes of COVID-19 in 1.4 million children and adults, including 242,101 older adults for two years. They also analyzed how different COVID-19 variants affected risk profiles.

Patients recovered from mood and anxiety disorders such as depression and anxiety within one to two months, a duration commonly seen for these diagnoses following other respiratory infections. But the increased risk of dementia, psychotic disorders, cognitive deficits, and epilepsy or seizures persisted throughout the study, with adults representing the greater number of those affected, reported Maxime Taquet, PhD, and colleagues.

Among age groups, there was a notably higher incidence of cognitive deficit and dementia for adults aged 65 and older than for adults younger than age 65 or children. Psychotic disorder was more evident for children and older adults than for adults younger than age 65, they reported.

Meanwhile, higher mortality was seen among older adults diagnosed with neurological or psychiatric conditions, similar to that of other respiratory infections. This suggests that mortality in these cases may have had more to do with general physical ill health than COVID-19, investigators theorized.

Increase is not trivial

On a press call, Taquet said that although the excess rate these neurological disorders in COVID-19 is small, it is not trivial, medical news outlet Stat reported.

Regarding dementia, for example, “a 1.2% increase in the population in absolute terms and compared to in other previous infections is hard to ignore,” he said. Many of these patients will likely need to access medical care, he and his colleagues noted.

This added burden on the healthcare system may continue even when a variant such as omicron causes less severe disease, the authors added. Neurological and psychiatric problems were found to be similar during the delta and omicron waves of the pandemic, although the risk of death diminished with omicron.

Full findings were published in the Lancet.

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