Caught Covid? You could be at a threefold greater risk of permanent decline – new study

Omicron sub-variant discussed by infectious disease expert

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Hopes that the UK has finally seen the back of COVID-19 have been dashed in recent weeks. Thanks to the latest subvariants of Omicron – BA.4 and BA.5, roughly one in 50 people in England are currently infected. New research out today further adds to the growing concern about a resurgent Covid.

The research, presented today at the 8th European Academy of Neurology (EAN) Congress, reveals the debilitating effects Covid can have on the body.

The study, which analysed the health records of over half of the Danish population, found that those who had tested positive for COVID-19 were at an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and ischaemic stroke.

Out of the 919,731 individuals that tested for COVID-19 within the study, researchers found that the 43,375 people who tested positive had a 3.5 times increased risk of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurologic disorder that causes the brain to shrink (atrophy) and brain cells to die. It is the most common form of dementia.

What’s more, the study found a positive Covid test led to a 2.6 times increased risk of Parkinson’s disease, 2.7 times increased risk of ischaemic stroke and a 4.8 times increased risk of intracerebral haemorrhage (bleeding in the brain).

While neuroinflammation may contribute to an accelerated development of neurodegenerative disorders, the authors also highlighted implications of the scientific focus on long-term effects after COVID-19, commonly referred to as “long Covid”.

How the researchers gathered their findings

The study analysed in and outpatients in Denmark between February 2020 and November 2021, as well as influenza patients from the corresponding pre-pandemic period.

Researchers used statistical techniques to calculate relative risk, and results were stratified for hospitalisation status, age, sex, and comorbidities (having more than disease or condition present).

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Doctor Pardis Zarifkar, lead author from the Department of Neurology, Rigshospitalet, Copenhagen, Denmark, explained; “More than two years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the precise nature and evolution of the effects of COVID-19 on neurological disorders remained uncharacterised.

“Previous studies have established an association with neurological syndromes, but until now it is unknown whether COVID-19 also influences the incidence of specific neurological diseases and whether it differs from other respiratory infections.

“The increased risk of most neurological diseases was, however, no higher in COVID-19 positive patients than in people who had been diagnosed with influenza or other respiratory illnesses. COVID-19 patients did have a 1.7 times increased risk of ischaemic stroke in comparison to influenza and bacterial pneumonia inpatients over 80 years of age.

“The frequency of other neurodegenerative illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, myasthenia gravis, Guillain-Barré syndrome and narcolepsy did not increase after COVID-19, influenza, or pneumonia.”

Doctor Pardis Zarifkar added: “We found support for an increased risk of being diagnosed with neurodegenerative and cerebrovascular disorders in COVID-19 positive compared to COVID-negative patients, which must be confirmed or refuted by large registry studies in the near future. Reassuringly, apart for ischaemic stroke, most neurological disorders do not appear to be more frequent after COVID-19 than after influenza or community-acquired bacterial pneumonia.

“These findings will help to inform our understanding of the long-term effect of COVID-19 on the body and the role that infections play in neurodegenerative diseases and stroke.”

Commenting on the findings, Sara Imarisio, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on people with dementia, their carers and their families. The risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, the leading cause of dementia, is caused by a complex mix of age, genetics and other environmental factors.

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“This research suggests that having COVID-19 is linked to an increased risk of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, however this was no stronger than the link to other respiratory diseases like the flu. Diseases like Alzheimer’s develop in the brain over many years and COVID-19 has only been present in Europe since early 2020.

“It may be that people in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s are more susceptible to catching diseases like COVID-19. While the announcement of these findings is potentially concerning, we will need to see results of this study in a peer-reviewed publication before we can draw any real conclusions from this research.

“Relatively little is known about the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on brain health, and Alzheimer’s Research UK remains committed to monitoring the emerging evidence in this space. If anyone is worried about their memory and thinking, or long-term effects of COVID-19, they should consult with their doctor.”

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