A new study by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health confirms findings from 23andMe that depression and anxiety dramatically increase the likelihood of experiencing long COVID.
Published online in JAMA Psychiatry earlier this month, the study found that psychological distress in the form of depression, anxiety, stress, and loneliness were more predictive than many physical risk factors like obesity, asthma, and hypertension, said Siwen Wang, the researcher in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School who led the study.
“We were surprised by how strongly psychological distress before a COVID-19 infection was associated with an increased risk of long COVID,” Siwen said.
Psychological Stress Increases Risk of COVID
The team’s findings showed that psychological stress contributed to a one-and-a-half-fold increase in the risk for long COVID. 23andMe’s results showed a two-fold increase. But the differences in the two studies may be explained by how the studies defined long COVID. 23andMe looked at data from individuals with a formal diagnosis of long COVID. The Harvard study didn’t just look those with a diagnosis but with COVID symptoms lasting four weeks or longer. But when applying similar criteria to the 23andMe data, our researchers also saw a one-and-a-half-fold increased risk of developing long COVID.
The Harvard study examined data from 54,000 individuals over a 19-month period. About 3,200 of participants in the study contracted COVID. The 23andMe study included data from more than 100,000 individuals who reported contracting COVID-19. Of those, more than 26,000 reported that they had experienced long COVID. Over 7,000 of participants said they’d been diagnosed with it. Even after a year, more than 10 percent of those in 23andMe’s study continued to have symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, and shortness of breath. It’s important to note that long COVID refers to individuals with symptoms that linger weeks, months, or longer after a COVID-19 infection.
23andMe Long COVID Findings
Among the areas of study is research on the role blood type plays in severity and susceptibility to the virus. Our researchers have also drawn new insights into the genetics that influence different reactions to COVID-19 vaccines. Earlier this year, 23andMe published a study in Nature Genetics that identified genetic variants associated with the loss of smell or taste due to COVID-19. That paper offers more detail on the study, which identified variants near two olfactory genes — UGT2A1 and UGT2A2.
The Harvard study and the preliminary 23andMe data offer more insight into the perplexing nature of long COVID. But the studies also offer another illustration of the broader health impacts of these kinds of psychological stressors.
Find the full Harvard study here.