People who have memory problems, trouble focusing and post-traumatic stress disorder are likelier than others to report long COVID symptoms, a new study found.
Six researchers published the study Friday in JAMA Network Open, interviewing 766 patients with confirmed COVID-19 infections in the Los Angeles area from April 2020 to February 2021. The study followed up with them at 60- and 90-day intervals after diagnosis.
The researchers found that 276 patients — 36.1% of the study group — reported mental struggles within four weeks of hospitalization or outpatient infection. They were twice as likely as those who did not notice any cognitive problems to report symptoms of long COVID up to three months after infection.
Within four weeks of infection, 118 patients (42.8%) reporting perceived cognitive deficits also reported long COVID symptoms compared with 105 (21.4%) without mental struggles who still noted infection signs.
The study said additional links between the perceived cognitive dysfunctions and pre-existing psychiatric disorders like anxiety and depression point to an emotional or psychological cause for long COVID in some patients.
“From a clinical perspective, these data might suggest that early evaluation of perceived cognitive deficits might help in identification of patients with acute COVID-19 who should receive more intensive monitoring for persistence of symptoms and perhaps for a focus on intervention,” the researchers wrote.
The World Health Organization defines long COVID, also known as post-COVID-19 condition, as acute symptoms lasting three to five months after infection.
Such symptoms include loss of taste and smell, shortness of breath, muscle weakness, lightheadedness and various psychological and behavioral issues.
At the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, a new Adult Post-acute COVID Clinic has experimented with some treatments for long COVID symptoms.
There are two theories for why many long COVID patients report cognitive difficulties, said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at the school. He said the study published Tuesday “confirms and further documents” the issue.
“There are suggestions that the virus or parts of the virus might persist in the brain for some time, disrupting its function,” Dr. Schaffner told The Washington Times. “Other studies suggest that there might be a persistent inflammatory response in the brain that distorts its function. It is possible that both mechanisms might be at work.”
The study published Tuesday found that the most common symptoms of long COVID reported one month after diagnosis were fatigue (432 of the 766 patients), shortness of breath (475 patients) and muscle aches (345 patients).
A total of 231 patients in the study reported trouble organizing things, 220 (28.7%) said they struggled to concentrate on activities like watching TV or reading a book and 198 (25.8%) admitted forgetting what they discussed during a telephone call.
Of the 276 patients who perceived a cognitive deficit, 63 patients (22.8%) responded yes to only one of these items, 53 patients (19.2%) said yes to two items and 160 patients (58.0%) said yes to all three items.
“Some of these patients were hospitalized, after which perceived cognitive deficits may arise from disputed sleep/wake cycles, the receipt of sedative medications and the psychosocial stress of a hospitalization,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious diseases specialist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “This wouldn’t apply to those who weren’t hospitalized, and I think that these types of patients should be analyzed separately.”