Covid-19 link to strokes, psychiatric problems concerns health experts

Health organisations say they are concerned by the findings of a new study that suggests more than a third of Covid-19 survivors go on to suffer neurological or psychiatric problems, and have called for more research and monitoring.

Scientists from the United States and Oxford University in Britain studied the electronic health records of more than 236,000 coronavirus patients, mostly from the US, and found that 34 per cent were diagnosed with mental or neurological conditions within six months of being infected, according to a study published on Tuesday in medical journal The Lancet Psychiatry.

The most common mental disorders were anxiety, which affected 17 per cent of the patients, and mood swings at 14 per cent. Neurological conditions were not uncommon in those seriously ill with Covid-19, with 7 per cent of patients suffering a stroke and almost 2 per cent of patients being diagnosed with dementia, the research found.

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The risk of these conditions for coronavirus survivors was 44 per cent higher than for the flu and 16 per cent higher than for other respiratory tract infections, it said.

Dr Richard Francis, who heads research at Britain’s the Stroke Association, said he was concerned with the findings and called for more research.

“It’s concerning that this study, primarily based on United States data, finds people with Covid-19 may be at a higher risk of stroke. There have been multiple reports linking Covid-19 and stroke, but few large studies like this to understand Covid-19 as a stroke risk factor,” he said in a press release.

While the risk of suffering a stroke after contracting Covid-19 is low, it is higher than for other infections. The study found that compared to people who had the flu, coronavirus infections had a 62 per cent higher risk of stroke caused by blood clots and a 71 per cent higher risk of stroke caused by a bleed in the brain, according to Francis.

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Dr Hannah Sugarman, clinical adviser to mental health charity Mind Hong Kong, said she was not surprised by the findings as other research had shown Covid-19 could lead to long-term health problems.

“The findings from this study provide a strong argument for the inclusion of mental health assessment and support as part of the standard aftercare pathway for survivors of Covid-19,” she said.

Patients should monitor their mental health as they recover, such as increased anxiety or low mood that persists for longer than a couple of weeks, she said.

People should also speak to their family doctor or a mental health professional if they noticed changes in their mental health that interfered with their ability to function, she said.

The lead author of the study, Professor Paul Harrison from the University of Oxford, said the findings confirmed the high rates of psychiatric diagnoses in Covid-19 survivors and showed that nervous system disorders such as stroke and dementia happened too, especially in those who had a more severe infection.

“Although the individual risks for most disorders are small, the effect across the whole population may be substantial for health and social care systems due to the scale of the pandemic and that many of these conditions are chronic,” he said in a press release.

“Health care systems need to be resourced to deal with the anticipated need, both within primary and secondary care services,” he said.

The authors of the study noted some limitations to their research. The completeness and accuracy of the electronic health records were not known, and the people studied were more likely to have had more severe disease than the general population as those with mild or no symptoms would not have needed health care.

The severity and course of the neurological and mental disorders were also unknown, they said.

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