From the Journals

Anxiety, your brain, and long COVID: What the research says


Anxiety, depression, and COVID-19 can be a bad combination for your brain – and your long-term health.

Having anxiety and depression before a COVID infection increases the risk of developing long COVID, researchers have found.

Those with long COVID who develop anxiety and depression after an infection may have brain shrinkage in areas that regulate memory, emotion, and other functions as well as disruption of brain connectivity.

While many questions remain about these intertwined relationships, the associations aren’t a complete surprise. Experts already know that depression and anxiety are associated with inflammation and immune dysfunction, perhaps helping to explain the link between these mental health conditions, the risk of long COVID, and the changes in the brain.

Brain changes accompanying a COVID infection have concerned researchers since earlier in the pandemic, when U.K. Biobank researchers found brain atrophy, loss of grey matter, and decline in cognition in those infected with COVID, compared with those not infected.

Common conditions

The ramifications of the research linking anxiety, depression, and long COVID are far-reaching. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12.5% of U.S. adults have regular feelings of anxiety (as well as nervousness and worry), and the latest Gallup Poll found that nearly 18% of adults currently have or are being treated for depression.

As of May 8, 10% of infected adults in the United States have long COVID, according to the CDC, and among U.S. adults ever infected, 27% have reported long COVID. Long COVID has been defined by the CDC as symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, and cough that persist longer than 4 weeks and by the World Health Organization as symptoms persisting for 3 months or more.

Here’s a roundup of what the research shows about mental health and long COVID risk – along with other research finding that paying attention to health habits may reduce that risk.

Pre-existing depression, anxiety, and long COVID risk

A history of mental health issues – including depression, anxiety, worry, perceived stress, and loneliness – raises the risk of long COVID if infection occurs, Harvard researchers have found.

The researchers evaluated data from three large, ongoing studies including nearly 55,000 participants to determine the effects of high levels of psychological distress before a COVID infection.

“Our study was purely survey based,” said Siwen Wang, MD, the study’s lead author and a research fellow at Harvard School of Public Health, Boston.

At the start of the survey in April 2020, none of the participants reported a current or previous COVID infection. They answered surveys about psychological distress at the start of the study, at 6 monthly time points, then quarterly until November 2021.

Over the follow up, 3,193 people reported a positive COVID test and 43% of those, or 1,403, developed long COVID. That number may seem high, but 38% of the 55,000 were active health care workers. On the final questionnaire, they reported whether their symptoms persisted for 4 weeks or longer and thus had long COVID by the standard CDC definition.

Dr. Wang’s team then looked at the infected participants’ psychological status. Anxiety raised the risk of long COVID by 42%, depression by 32%, worry about COVID by 37%, perceived stress, 46%, and loneliness, 32%.

COVID patients with a history of depression or anxiety are also more likely than others to report trouble with cognition in the weeks after a COVID infection and to develop brain fog and long COVID, UCLA researchers found. They evaluated 766 people with a confirmed COVID infection; 36% said their thinking was affected within 4 weeks of the infection. Those with anxiety and depression were more likely to report those difficulties.


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