New study shows Long COVID still a concern years after infection

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A new study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System reveals mixed news about the long-term effects of COVID-19.

The research focuses on “long COVID,” which refers to health problems that persist long after the initial infection.

Bad News: Increased risk of death and health problems

The study found that people who were hospitalized with COVID-19 within 30 days of infection have a 29% higher risk of death three years later compared to those who never had the virus.

While this risk has decreased compared to one and two years after infection, it remains significant.

Even people who had mild COVID-19 are experiencing new health issues three years later.

Good News: Lower risk for non-hospitalized patients

For people who were not hospitalized, the risk of death drops significantly one year after infection. This group makes up the majority of COVID-19 cases. The study, published on May 30 in Nature Medicine, tracked health effects in people infected with COVID-19 in 2020, assessing the risk of death and 80 different health conditions three years later.

Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, the senior author and a leading researcher on long COVID, explained that the virus’s long-term effects might be due to ongoing viral presence, chronic inflammation, or immune system problems.

These findings challenge the common belief that infections are only short-term health issues.

Statistics on Long COVID

According to federal data, up to 10% of people infected with COVID-19 experience long COVID. Dr. Al-Aly’s previous research has shown that COVID-19 can harm nearly every organ, including the lungs, heart, brain, and gastrointestinal system.

The study analyzed millions of medical records from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

It included over 114,000 veterans with mild COVID-19, more than 20,000 hospitalized patients, and 5.2 million people who never had COVID-19. Patients were tracked from March 1, 2020, to December 31, 2023.

Three years after infection, hospitalized COVID-19 patients had a 34% higher risk of health problems affecting all organ systems compared to those who never had COVID-19.

This is an improvement from the 182% increased risk one year after infection and the 57% risk two years after.

For non-hospitalized patients, the risk of long COVID was 5% higher three years after infection, translating to 41 additional health problems per 1,000 people. This primarily affected the gastrointestinal, pulmonary, and neurological systems.

The study also measured the number of healthy life years lost due to COVID-19. Three years post-infection, non-hospitalized patients lost 10 healthy life years per 1,000 people, while hospitalized patients lost 90 healthy life years per 1,000 people.

For comparison, heart disease and cancer each cause about 50 lost healthy life years per 1,000 people, and stroke causes 10 lost healthy life years per 1,000 people.

Sobering Findings

Dr. Al-Aly emphasized that even mild COVID-19 can lead to new health problems years later, and the impact is much worse for those with severe infections. He warned that COVID-19 is a serious long-term health threat.

The study focused on infections from 2020, before vaccines and antivirals were available, and did not include data on newer variants like Omicron or Delta. Dr. Al-Aly stressed the importance of not underestimating COVID-19’s lasting effects, saying, “Even three years out, you might have forgotten about COVID-19, but COVID hasn’t forgotten about you.”

If you care about COVID, please read studies about vitamin D deficiency linked to severe COVID-19, death, and how diets could help manage post-COVID syndrome.

For more health information, please see recent studies about COVID infection and vaccination linked to heart disease, and results showing extracts from two wild plants can inhibit COVID-19 virus.