Major Life Stressors Strongly Predictive of Long COVID Symptoms

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After recovery from acute infection with SARS-CoV-2, major stressful life events such as the death of a loved one or financial insecurity can have a significant impact on the development of long COVID symptoms, new research suggests.

Major life stressors in the year after hospital discharge for COVID-19 are “strongly predictive of a lot of the important outcomes that people may face after COVID,” lead investigator Jennifer A. Frontera, MD, a professor in the Department of Neurology at NYU Langone Health, New York City, told Medscape Medical News.

These outcomes include depression, brain fog, fatigue, trouble sleeping, and other long COVID symptoms.

The findings were published online November 5 in the Journal of the Neurological Sciences.

Major Stressful Events Common

Frontera and the NYU Neurology COVID-19 study team evaluated 451 adults who survived a COVID hospital stay. Of these, 383 completed a 6-month follow-up, 242 completed a 12-month follow-up, and 174 completed follow-up at both time points. 

Within 1 year of discharge, 77 (17%) patients died and 51% suffered a major stressful life event.

In multivariable analyses, major life stressors — including financial insecurity, food insecurity, death of a close contact, and new disability — were strong independent predictors of disability, trouble with activities of daily living, depression, fatigue, sleep problems, and prolonged post-acute COVID symptoms. The adjusted odds ratios for these outcomes ranged from 2.5 to 20.8. 

The research also confirmed the contribution of traditional risk factors for long COVID symptoms, as shown in past studies. These include older age, poor pre-COVID functional status, and more severe initial COVID-19 infection.

Long-term sequelae of COVID are increasingly recognized as major public health issues. 

It has been estimated that roughly 16 million US adults aged 18 to 65 have long COVID, with the often debilitating symptoms keeping up to 4 million out of work. 

Holistic Approach

Frontera said it’s important to realize that “sleep, fatigue, anxiety, depression, even cognition are so interwoven with each other that anything that impacts any one of them could have repercussions on the other.”

She added that it “certainly makes sense that there is an interplay or even a bi-directional relationship between the stressors that people face and how well they can recover after COVID.”

Therapies that lessen the trauma of the most stress-inducing life events need to be a central part of treatment for long COVID, with more research needed to validate the best approaches, Frontera said.

She also noted that social services or case management resources may be able to help address at least some of the stressors that individuals are under — and it is important to refer them to these resources. Referral to mental health services is also important.

“I think it’s really important to take a holistic approach and try to deal with whatever the problem may be,” said Frontera.

“I’m a neurologist, but as part of my evaluation, I really need to address if there are life stressors or mental health issues that may be impacting this person’s function,” she added.

The study had no commercial funding. The investigators have reported no relevant financial relationships.

J Neurol Sci. Published online November 5, 2022. Full article

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