People in psychological distress before getting infected with the COVID-19 virus have an increased risk of developing long COVID, a new study suggests. Photo by 1388843/Pixabay
People who are depressed, anxious, worried, stressed or lonely becoming infected with the COVID-19 virus have an increased risk of developing long COVID symptoms, a Harvard-led study out Wednesday suggests.
And the researchers said this heightened risk of ending up with the often debilitating, long-term condition following the acute phase of SARS-CoV-2 infection was independent of smoking, asthma, and other health behaviors or physical health conditions.
The study was published online in JAMA Psychiatry.
The Harvard researchers found that psychological distress before COVID-19 infection was associated with a 32% to 46% increased risk of long COVID — and a 15% to 51% greater risk of what they termed “daily life impairment” due to long COVID.
“We were surprised by how strongly psychological distress before a COVID-19 infection was associated with an increased risk of long COVID,” Siwen Wang, a researcher in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who led the study, said in a news release.
Wang added: “Distress was more strongly associated with developing long COVID than physical health risk factors such as obesity, asthma, and hypertension.”
This follows a British study from late July finding that people with long COVID are experiencing a broader array of symptoms than previously thought, including hair loss and sexual dysfunction, as well as fatigue, breathing difficulties and brain fog.
In the United States, as of July 2021, long COVID can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
According to the researchers, mental health is known to affect the outcomes of some diseases, and depression and other mental illnesses have been associated with greater risk of more severe COVID-19 and possible hospitalization.
They said that mental health conditions alongside other acute respiratory tract infections, such as flu or common cold, are associated with more severe, longer-lasting symptoms.
And they pointed to previous studies that suggest psychological distress is associated with chronic symptoms after Lyme disease and in chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, which have symptoms similar to those of long COVID.
For the new study, Wang and her colleagues enrolled more than 54,000 people in April 2020, asking the participants about their psychological distress and then following them for more than a year.
Over that period of time, the 3,000-plus participants who contracted COVID-19 were asked about their virus symptoms and symptom duration. The researchers then analyzed the responses, comparing those individuals who developed long COVID to those who did not.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first prospective study to show that a wide range of social and psychological factors are risk factors for long COVID and daily life impairment due to long COVID,” Andrea Roberts, the study’s senior author said in the release.
Roberts, a senior research scientist in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard Chan School, cited the need to consider psychological health, as well as physical health, as risk factors of long COVID-19.
Roberts said the study’s findings reinforce the need to increase public awareness of the importance of mental health and ensure people who need care receive it.