A new large-scale study has found that those infected with COVID-19 were 41% more likely to be diagnosed with sleep disorders within a year of infection than those who were not diagnosed with COVID.
The recently published study looked at a large sampling of US army veterans. It was published in the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal and surveyed new diagnoses of mental health issues in over 153,000 veterans who survived COVID-19 between March 1, 2020, and January 15, 2021.
It found that within a year of infection, 2.3% of survivors got a new diagnosis for a sleep disorder. That represented an increase of 41% compared to those who had not caught COVID-19. COVID-19 survivors were also 39% more likely to be diagnosed with depression and 35% more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety, the study found.
The study indicates that the mental health effects of COVID-19 can be long-term.
“The diseases that we’re talking about as a result of COVID-19 in the long term are chronic diseases that really will scar people for a lifetime,” said Ziyad Al-Aly, one of the study authors, in an interview with Bloomberg.
Al-Aly is also chief of research and education service at the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System.
“While we all suffered mental distress in this pandemic, people with COVID-19 had it much worse and are experiencing mental health problems up to a year after their initial diagnosis,” he said.
Those who had survived COVID-19 were also much more likely to use pills to deal with their conditions, with 63% more of those who had COVID-19 using sleeping pills after catching the coronavirus and 34% more having developed an opioid-use disorder.
However, while the correlation in the study group was strong, the researchers were quick to point out that the reported figures might not be directly applicable to the wider US population. The veteran group used in the study is made up primarily of men, most of whom were white and older, with an average age of 63.
Scientists are now racing to understand if the coronavirus can affect the brain directly. Some suspect the infection could be causing inflammation and contributing to psychosis symptoms, for instance.
“Inflammatory markers can disrupt the ability of the brain to function in many ways, including the ability of the brain to make serotonin, which is fundamental for mood and sleep,” Maura Boldrini, a professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Columbia University Medical Center, told the NY Times.
Boldrini said the increased risk of mental health illness among those who had COVID-19 is likely due to a combination of biological factors and psychological stresses.