Depression, anxiety, worries about the pandemic and other sources of stress before contracting Covid-19 may increase the likelihood of developing persistent “long-distance” symptoms, a Harvard University study found.
Mental stress prior to infection was associated with a higher risk of post-Covid illness, researchers at Harvard TH Chan School of Medicine in Boston said. Their study, which followed around 55,000 people over 19 months, found that the compound increased in a dose-dependent manner.
Those who experienced two or more types of conditions before becoming infected had a nearly 50 percent higher risk of self-reported impairment lasting four weeks or more.
Persistent symptoms – from chronic fatigue and “brain fog” to hair loss and shortness of breath – affect an estimated 10 to 20 percent of Covid survivors. Nobody knows what causes it, although obesity, being female, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system are among the alleged risk factors.
With Covid costing an estimated $3.7 trillion in the US alone, there is an urgent need to understand the condition in order to find ways to treat and prevent it.
Mental stress has been linked to longer and more severe illness after respiratory infections, and it may drive the kind of immune activation and dysregulation associated with long-standing Covid, the Harvard researchers said in the study published Wednesday in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
“Identifying and treating biological pathways that link stress to long-term COVID-19 symptoms may benefit individuals with post-COVID-19 illness or other chronic post-infection syndromes,” the investigators wrote. “Further research should examine whether interventions that reduce stress help prevent or treat post-Covid illness.”
Long Covid is significantly different from symptoms of mental illness and the results should not be misconstrued as supporting a hypothesis that the illness is psychosomatic or has no medical explanation, the researchers said. Among respondents who have developed post-Covid conditions, more than 40% had not reported any conditions prior to contracting the coronavirus.
The study, which examined some common but largely unexplored types of stress, including loneliness, used data from other cohort studies in which the participants were often white female healthcare workers. This could limit the generalizability of the study’s findings to other groups, the authors said.
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