A new study sheds some light on the condition’s lasting complications.

(Tess Bonn) —  You may have recovered from Covid-19 in a few days or weeks, but many people continue to feel the impacts of the virus for years. New findings released on Monday suggest that people who endured even mild cases of the virus are at higher risk two years later for symptoms of long Covid, and this affected their life expectancy overall.

In a study published in the journal Nature Medicine, researchers tallied roughly 80 health complications typical of the post-infection condition, like heart problems and blood clots, which translate into disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) — or time lost due to ill health. That means long Covid has a higher disease burden than even heart disease or cancer, which cause about 52 and 50 DALYs for every 1,000 Americans, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease.

This no doubt puts an immense burden on an already strained healthcare system. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly one in five Americans still have long Covid. The good news is it looks like these rates are declining: The number of people who say they either currently have or had symptoms from it dropped from 35 percent in June 2022 to 28 percent in January 2023, according to an analysis by the nonprofit KFF.

Wondering if you have the mysterious illness? Here’s more on what we know about the condition and the findings of the new research.

What is long Covid?

Scientists are still trying to make sense of long Covid. So far, more than 200 symptoms have been with associated with it. What we do know is that term is used to refer to new, returning, or even ongoing complications that people develop after being infected by the coronavirus.

While most people fully recover from Covid-19 within a few days or weeks, others may continue to experience symptoms of the virus. (Per the CDC, long Covid is usually defined as at least four weeks after getting sick.) Certain strains could also even put you at risk. For instance, immunologist Akiko Iwasaki told The Washington Post that the Omicron variant, which has spawned recent subvariants like XBB.1.16, is known to cause long Covid.

But not everyone who experiences long Covid knows they had the disease in the first place because they may not have had symptoms.

“Long Covid is not one illness,” the CDC states. “Your healthcare provider considers a diagnosis of Long Covid based on your health history, including if you had a diagnosis of Covid-19 either by a positive test or by symptoms or exposure, as well as doing a health examination.”

What did the long Covid study find?

One of the things the study found was that there were long-term risks associated with catching Covid-19 — even if it wasn’t a serious case. Even people who fought off mild infections were still more likely to die about six months after they first got sick than those who weren’t infected. Though their risk of having many Covid symptoms went down, it remained high for about one-third of the 77 conditions measured in the study. Some of those issues included everything from cardiovascular and gastrointestinal trouble to fatigue and trouble sleeping.

But the Covid survivors who had been hospitalized experienced much worse. They remained at increased risk for at least two years after their infection from death, subsequent hospitalization, and two-thirds of the medical conditions included in the analysis, such as diabetes to kidney disorders. They were also more likely to struggle with substance abuse and to report contemplating suicide.

“It appears that the effects of long Covid for many will not only impact such patients and their quality of life, but potentially will contribute to a decline in life expectancy, and also may impact labor participation, economic productivity, and societal well-being,” senior author Ziyad Al-Aly stated in the study.

How did researchers come up with these findings?

Researchers looked at medical records of nearly 139,000 veterans diagnosed with Covid-19 early in the pandemic in 2020, and compared them to another group of nearly 6 million veterans not known to be infected with Covid during that time.

But the Nature Medicine paper acknowledged some of its limitations. Those involved in the study were mostly in their 60s, and almost 90 percent of them were male, so they weren’t representative of who is most likely to develop long Covid. (According to a study published in the National Library of Medicine, women have a 58 percent higher risk of developing the illness compared to the rest of the population).

The study was also conducted before Covid vaccines had been developed and before the population had been able to build up immunity from infections. “The whole landscape has evolved,” coronavirus researcher Eric Topol told The Washington Post