Young people post COVID are likely to have increased cholesterol – high BMI – reduced level of physical stamina


Healthy young people with just a mild COVID infection can sometimes suffer temporary post-infection consequences such as tiredness, loss of smell and taste or reduced fertility. These symptoms usually improve with time.

But a new UZH study conducted with Swiss Armed Forces personnel shows that young people post COVID are likely to have increased cholesterol, a high BMI, and a reduced level of physical stamina. As a result, they may be more likely to develop metabolic disorders and cardiovascular complications in the long term.

As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, the issue of post-infection consequences is growing in significance. Does long COVID impact previously healthy young adults? Although this group is of great societal importance, representing the next generation and the backbone of the workforce, the intermediate-term and long-term effects of SARS-CoV-2 infections have scarcely been researched in this population. Available original research tends to focus on sufferers who were hospitalized, the elderly or those with multiple morbidities, or restricts evaluations to a single organ system.

Long COVID implications in young Swiss military personnel

A new study, supported by the Swiss Armed Forces, and conducted under the leadership of Patricia Schlagenhauf, Professor at the Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Prevention Institute of the University of Zurich (UZH), has now evaluated possible long COVID implications in young Swiss military personnel.

The study, published in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases, was done between May and November 2021 with 29 female and 464 male participants with a median age of 21. 177 participants had confirmed COVID-19 more than 180 days prior to the testing day, and the control group was made up of 251 SARS-CoV-2 serologically negative individuals. Unlike other studies the novel test battery also evaluated cardiovascular, pulmonary, neurological, ophthalmological, male fertility, psychological and general systems.

Despite overall recovery, sequelae after recent infections remain

The findings show that young, previously healthy, non-hospitalized individuals largely recover from mild infection and that the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 virus on several systems of the body is less than that seen in older, multi-morbid or hospitalized patients.

However, the study also provided evidence that recent infections—even mild ones—can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, reduced sense of smell and psychological problems for up to 180 days, as well as having a short-term negative impact on male fertility. For non-recent infections—more than 180 days back—these effects were no longer significant.

Specific constellation carries risk of developing metabolic disorders

For those with non-recent infections, however, the study—which had a long follow-up—provided evidence of a potentially risky constellation: “Increased BMI, high cholesterol and lower physical stamina is suggestive of a higher risk of developing metabolic disorders and possible cardiovascular complications,” says principal investigator Patricia Schlagenhauf. “These results have societal and public-health effects and can be used to guide strategies for broad interdisciplinary evaluation of COVID-19 sequelae, their management, curative treatments, and provision of support in young adult populations.”

The study, conducted in collaboration with clinics at the University Hospital Zurich and Spiez Laboratory, is novel in that it quantitatively evaluated multi-organ function using a sensitive, minimally invasive test battery in a homogenous group of people several months after a COVID-19 infection.

A valuable facet of the study was the control group, serologically confirmed to have had no SARS-CoV-2 exposure. “This combination of a unique test battery, a homogenous cohort and a control group make this a very powerful, landmark study in the evidence base on Long COVID in young adults,” says Schlagenhauf.

In this study, we performed a follow-up investigation of lipid profiles and other laboratory values on 107 recovered COVID-19 patients at 3–6 months after discharge. Our data demonstrate that levels of LDL-c and HDL-c increased significantly in severe/critical COVID-19 cases with or without adjustment of the application of traditional Chinese medicine. Coagulation and liver laboratory values, including D-dimer, ATIII, FDP, FIB, CRP, ALT, ALP, and GGT, decreased significantly across all subgroups. Furthermore, incomplete absorption of lung lesions was observed in CT images in most follow-up patients. These findings provide insight into the pathological evolution of COVID-19 during recovery and potential long-term sequelae of the disease.

Recently, we and other investigators have reported hypolipidemia in hospitalized COVID-19 patients [10,11,12,13]. The decrease in lipid levels in patients with COVID-19 is associated with the severity of the symptoms [10,11,12]. These findings demonstrate that abnormalities in lipid metabolism are clinical manifestations of COVID-19 that have been underappreciated. Mild or moderate liver injuries caused by viral infection may be one important factor contributing to dyslipidemia in COVID-19 patients.

Serum levels of ALT, ALP, and GGT were moderately elevated in about half of the cohort of patients in our study at the time of admission, indicating mild or moderate liver injury [11]. In this study, patient ALT, ALP, and GGT levels were significantly lower at follow-up than at the time of admission, indicating improvements in liver enzyme levels in patients during recovery. There are a couple of potential mechanisms involved in the role of cholesterol in the pathological progression of COVID-19.

Wang et al. suggests that cholesterol concomitantly traffics ACE2 to viral entry sites, where SARS-CoV-2 docks in order to properly exploit entry into cells [19]. Therefore, decreased cholesterol levels in the blood may indicate severe loading of cholesterol in peripheral tissue and escalated SARS-CoV-2 infectivity [19]. Cao et al. suggests that cholesterol may facilitate an acceleration of endothelial injuries caused by SARS-CoV-2 [20].

Sorokin suggests that lowering HDL-c in COVID-19 patients may decrease the anti-inflammatory and antioxidative functions of HDL-c and contribute to pulmonary inflammation [13]. The decrease in WBC and increase in lymphocytes at follow-up may be reflected cytokine secretion and inflammatory status and related to lipid parameters. In addition, serum amyloid A protein (SAA) level can rise up to 1000-fold in response to an acute inflammation, which will displace apolipoprotein A-I from HDL particles [21]. HDL containing SAA is targeted to the macrophage [22].

SAA level increases in COVID-19 patients, especially severe cases [23, 24]. It is likely that SAA/apolipoprotein A-I axis gets involved in HDL-c metabolism in COVID-19 patients, but the detailed mechanism needs to be elucidated in future studies. All these hypotheses will lead to more and novel insights into the nature of this disease.

The dynamics of lipid levels in a small cohort of our longitudinal study and in two cases in other reports have shown that cholesterol levels were low at the time the patients were hospitalized, remained low during disease progression, and returned to baseline levels in patients who were discharged [10, 12, 13]. To our surprise, after exclusion of the factor of taking cholesterol-lowering drugs, a small portion of patients (6%) showed a decrease in LDL-c or HDL-c levels of 15% or more at follow-up as compared to the time of admission. The low lipid levels in these patients were probably due to medications or nutritional supplements taken during their own recovery process at home, for example, profound and acute dietary changes.

It would be interesting to find out whether those patients with lower LDL-c or HDL-c levels at follow-up were associated with malnutritional or socioeconomically underrepresented populations. Loss of appetite is one of early symptoms for some COVID-19 patients. They may continue having a poor appetite during the disease progression and recovery courses which may result in malnutrition thus low lipid levels at follow-up. Low lipid levels may also be caused by the matter of patient compliance after discharge. Although it is less likely, there could be a long-term sequela of lipid abnormality caused by or associated with viral infection in COVID-19 patients; there is no evidence to support the notion that SARS-CoV-2 causes long-term chronic infection.

Emerging evidence has supported coagulation as an independent mortality factor in COVID-19 patients. Coagulopathies have been found in the early stages of the disease [25,26,27] and in non-surviving patients [28]. Patients have shown elevated coagulation and cardiac biomarkers such as D-dimer, fibrinogen, high-sensitivity troponin I and creatinine kinase–myocardial band [29, 30]. In our follow-up study, coagulation laboratory values, including D-dimer, ATIII, FDP, and FIB, were significantly lower in patients at follow-up as compared to the time of admission across all subgroups, indicating improvements from coagulopathies. However, we did not find significant correlations between the restoration of LDL-c or HDL-c levels and decreases in levels of these coagulation values; this suggests that recovery from dyslipidemia and improvements from coagulopathies are probably involving different pathways at different paces.

Incomplete resolution of lung lesions was observed in 72% patients in the follow-up CT examinations, suggesting pulmonary fibrosis as a potential long-term sequela for many COVID-19 patients. SARS patients have shown persistent impairment of lung function, even years after discharge [31, 32]. Pulmonary fibrosis, GGO, and pleural thickening have been reported in follow-up chest radiographs in a substantial portion of patients with Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) [33]. Consistent with our findings, You et al. showed that 83.3% of COVID-19 patients had residual CT abnormalities, including GGO and pulmonary fibrosis [34]. These data suggest that aberrant wound healing in COVID-19 survivors, which is evidenced by GGO and residue lesion patterns, may lead to pulmonary fibrosis; larger studies are needed to verify this notion.

There were several limitations of this study. First, less than one-fifth of the patients from our original cohort participated in this study, which might cause a biased representative sample group from the original cohort. Second, the sample size for follow-up critical cases was limited; this might lead to an overall insignificant increase in levels of LDL-c in this subgroup. Third, many patients might have been taking various medications or remedies at home for recovery, including Chinese traditional medicines or nutritional supplements. In this study, we found that about 58% of patients in mild group and 37% of patients in severe group had taken TCHMs during their illness or / and recovery courses.

Our data indicated that TCHMs might have a negative impact on the improvement of lipid profiles in patients with severe symptoms. However, due to the complexity of ingredients in those TCHMs, it will be very difficult to determine which factor(s) and how they interfere with lipid metabolisms in some patients’ recoveries in the severe group; this will need a thorough investigation in future. We, however, did not find so far that TCHMs caused any significant changes in the overall lipid profiles at the time of admission and follow-up crossing all the subgroups.

Therefore, TCHMs might have a minor effect on lipid values in our patients which resulted in a negligible impact on the conclusions we drew in this study. We are aware that these data and analyses only apply to this specific Chinese population. Fourth, the lipid profiles of patients prior to discharge were crucial to determine the contributive factors to the decreased LDL-c or HDL-c levels in a small portion of patients at follow-up as compared to admission, which were lacking.

Fifth, a continuous long-term follow-up is needed in order to monitor the dynamics of lipid profiles and CT abnormalities during the recovery process for a large cohort of COVID-19 patients in order to better predict potential sequelae, such as lung fibrosis; this will be our future research goal.

Lastly, the characteristics of lipoproteins, such as apolipoprotein A-I, in our cohort was unknown. We also did not know the cellular cholesterol levels in COVID-19 in this study; such information could provide us insights into the molecular mechanisms underlying dyslipidemia in COVID-19. Whether and how cholesterol or lipoproteins participate in regulation of SARS-CoV-2 entry of host cells and viral production are yet to be determined, which will our primary goal in future investigations.

Collectively, our data show improvements of LDL-c and HDL-c and incomplete absorption of lung lesions in COVID-19 patients at a 3–6-month follow-up, indicating a long-term recovery process and the development of potential sequelae such as pulmonary fibrosis.

reference link:

More information: Jeremy Werner Deuel et al, Persistence, prevalence, and polymorphism of sequelae after COVID-19 in unvaccinated, young adults of the Swiss Armed Forces: a longitudinal, cohort study (LoCoMo), The Lancet Infectious Diseases (2022). DOI: 10.1016/S1473-3099(22)00449-2


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