- Psychiatrists from NYU found that the biggest COVID-19 death risk aside from age is schizophrenia, not one of the many common conditions that people associate with covid risks.
- Schizophrenia is a more significant death risk factor in COVID-19 than diabetes, heart failure, cancer, and other more common medical conditions.
- Researchers can’t explain why this particular mental disorder is such a big risk with COVID-19 and are still studying the matter.
People suffering from comorbidities are more likely to experience COVID-19 complications than those with no other medical conditions. Diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and obesity are included in the list of medical issues that can impact COVID-19 cases and lead to death. The elderly are most likely to experience complications after contracting the novel coronavirus because many of these illnesses come with age. That means older people often have more than one underlying conditions that would become risk factors in COVID-19.
But a new study now claims that the biggest COVID-19 death risk factor after age isn’t what most people expect. In fact, it’s not even on the list of comorbidities mentioned above.
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Researchers from the NYU School of Medicine looked at health records from 260 outpatient clinics and four hospitals in New York City, looking for COVID-19 cases. They included 7,348 adults who tested positive for COVID-19 from March 3rd through May 31st out of 26,540 patients. The scientists then divided the patients suffering from a known psychiatric disorder into three categories: schizophrenia spectrum, mood disorder, or anxiety disorder. They compared the data with COVID-19 patients who were not diagnosed with any psychiatric disorder. The scientists also adjusted their findings for several parameters, including sex, age, race, and known risk factors like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart conditions, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic kidney disease, smoking, and cancer.
Some 75 patients in the group had schizophrenia, a much lower figure than the mood disorder group (564) and the anxiety disorder cohort (360). The researchers found that mood and anxiety disorders were not associated with COVID-19 death risk. But schizophrenia turned out to be a major risk factor.
Those suffering from the illness were 2.7 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than people not suffering from a mental disorder. This would make schizophrenia the second-highest risk factor after age.
The researchers also found that people aged 45-54 were 3.9 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than younger patients, and the risk doubled every 10 years after the age of 54, irrespective of any mental health conditions. Patients with diabetes or heart failure had 1.65 times and 1.28 times higher risk of death in COVID-19, respectively.
That schizophrenia is such a major risk factor is “both expected but also surprising,” according to Dr. Donald Goff, who spoke to LiveScience about the study. The NYU professor explained it’s unclear what makes COVID-19 so dangerous for people who have schizophrenia. The mental disorder is a risk factor for other illnesses, and patients can exhibit behaviors that accompany the illness, including obesity, heart disease, and smoking. But the risk remains high even after adjusting for those conditions.
“It seemed as though there’s something about either the illness of schizophrenia or possibly medications that causes them to be at really high risk of mortality,” Goff said. Schizophrenia might impact the immune response, which could explain why COVID-19 could lead to death in those patients. But there’s no definitive proof of the mechanisms at play.
The authors also explained that the study was done early in the pandemic, and better treatments are now available. That means more research is needed in order to verify the conclusions. But schizophrenia may remain a higher risk than other illnesses. While Goff’s team is conducting more research to explain the higher death risk, the professor advises that people with schizophrenia are prioritized for vaccines.
The study is available in full in JAMA Psychiatry.