In trying to untangle the mysteries of long COVID, researchers have found anxiety and depression may play a role for some of those with the lingering condition.

In the study from researchers at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), patients who perceived that they had thinking difficulties during COVID infection were also more likely to have lingering physical symptoms than those who did not report thinking issues.

About one-third of people with long COVID symptoms perceived they had thinking deficits, which have been found to be related to anxiety and depression.

These findings suggest that psychological issues such as anxiety or depressive disorders play a part in some people experiencing long COVID.

“This perception of cognitive [thinking] deficits suggests that affective issues — in this case anxiety and depression — appear to carry over into the long COVID period,” said senior study author Dr. Neil Wenger. He is a professor of medicine in the division of general internal medicine and health services research at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

“This is not to say that long COVID is all in one’s head, but that it is likely not a single condition and that for some proportion of patients there is likely a component of anxiety or depression that is exacerbated by the disease,” Wenger explained in a university news release.

To study this, the investigators surveyed 766 patients enrolled in UCLA’s SARS-CoV-2 Ambulatory Program. They had earlier had confirmed symptomatic COVID-19 infection.

Patients were surveyed by telephone at 30 days, 60 days and 90 days following hospital discharge. For the patients who hadn’t been hospitalized, they were surveyed at those intervals after the date of a positive COVID test.

The participants were asked if they were experiencing physical symptoms of long COVID. Some examples included: Could they complete activities such as running, moving a table or climbing one flight of stairs? Or did they continue to have fever, chills, loss of smell or fatigue?

The survey also asked questions related to thinking function, such as whether they had trouble getting organized or concentrating on activities, or had forgotten what they discussed in a telephone conversation during the last month.

Just over 36% of the participants perceived during their illness or in the following weeks that they had thinking and memory difficulties. These patients were twice as likely as those who did not believe they had thinking deficits to say they were also experiencing physical symptoms at 60 and 90 days.

The study was funded by the National Center for Advancing Translational Science of the National Institutes of Health and was published online May 5 in JAMA Network Open.

Study limitations included that the answers were subjective. The researchers also did not have data on participants’ possible depression and anxiety prior to COVID-19 infection. These findings may not apply to other groups of patients because these individuals were referred by physicians who thought they were at clinically high risk for thinking deficits.

“These findings suggest a substantial psychological component for long-lasting SARS-CoV-2 symptoms for at least some patients,” the researchers concluded.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on long COVID.

SOURCE: University of California, Los Angeles, news release, May 5, 2023