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New brain health data offers hope to Utah's COVID long-haulers

Posted at 5:55 PM, Apr 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-07 19:55:09-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Good news could be on the horizon for Utah's COVID-19 long-haulers after one of the first studies providing data on how brain health is impacted by the coronavirus was published Tuesday.

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Researchers looked into health records for those 10 years and older in 2020, and for those who had any kind of respiratory infection or who were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Research from records, that some said portray their everyday reality.

Jess Monson said she’s never dealt with depression before, yet since she contracted COVID-19 in July 2020, she said her health has been a roller coaster.

“I have three kids,” said Monson. “I feel like I cannot do the things I’ve done with them.”

Some days are good, and Monson said she feels hope her health will go back to normal, but then the day following Monson said she would awake to pure exhaustion.

“The days decide for me how it’s going to go sometimes,” said Monson.

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Something, Andrew Stott can relate to after he contracted COVID-19 just before Thanksgiving.

“I still have really bad joint pain and shortness of breath,” said Stott.

Though his case felt very mild, Stott said the after-effects have been life altering.

“The mental health part of it actually turns out being worse,” said Stott.

One who is familiar with clinical depression, Stott said what he’s experiencing from COVID-19 feels almost like whiplash because his emotions are so up and down.

“If I’m going to feel like this for the rest of my life, what does that look like?” said Stott.

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Both Monson and Stott said they have sought help from health care providers and have completed countless tests, only to be told their diagnosis was unclear.

“There isn’t a lot of great doctor care for us,” said Stott.

The good news is, they’re not alone — and thanks to one Oxford University professor, there’s now data to back up some of the mental health impacts Stott and Monson are feeling.

Paul Harrison, a professor of psychiatry who has been with Oxford University for three decades, researched the brain health of those who had COVID-19.

Harrison’s researched aimed to provide “estimates” of the relative risks for neurological and psychiatric impacts in patients six months after contracting the virus.

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Using data from electronic health records with over 81 million patients, Harrison said they focused on patients from the United States.

“We looked to see how did the severity of their COVID affect those risks and compared those risks to people who had been ill with other things during the pandemic,” said Harrison.

With COVID-19, Harrison said records showed people were about 20 to 50 percent more likely to get depression.

“It’s not huge, but it’s significant,” said Harrison.

The study separated psychological health and brain health, or as Harrison explained it the difference between anxiety and having a stroke.

“What was striking was the data showed the brain things were based on how bad you had COVID, the mind things were not, “ said Harrison.

For the neurological diagnoses, Harrison said they found that after COVID-19, the risk of having a stroke or dementia increased based on how severe the virus was, yet the mental health diagnoses were not dependent on how ill you were.

“The anxiety and depression are not a biological effect of the virus, they’re the stress and the worry of having COVID and wondering what’s going to happen to you,” said Harrison. “Whereas the brain disease has something more to do with the virus itself.”

Twenty to fifty percent of the more than 200,000 COVID-19 patient records Harrison looked through, showed the patient had depression or anxiety. That’s one third of the population group and the majority of that thirty percent, said Harrison, were folks between 40 and 45 years old.

"After COVID you're at risk for both physical health care problems and mental health care problems,” said Harrison.

Yet, something to be aware of is two-thirds of the population studied did not have adverse effects.

“We don’t want people to get COVID and then be waiting, expecting that something terrible is going to happen,” said Harrison.

If, like Monson and Stott, your mental health is impacted, Harrison said there is no reason to believe it would be any less treatable than it would in any other situation.

“It might be even more treatable for all that we know, so it would be a tragedy for people sitting at home really suffering without seeking treatment that might change their lives for the better,” said Harrison.

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A neurologist, psychiatrist and primary health care provider should all be thought of as the same.

“We’re all dealing with illnesses that affect our brains, our personalities and our emotions,” said Harrison.

For Stott and Monson, the hope is that with more research and data comes more answers.

“We kind of have to be the pioneers in this whole thing,” said Monson. “At this point I’m okay, if it helps somebody else, then it is a good thing.”