‘It’s just part of aging’: Long-term COVID symptoms often overlooked in older adults

Application of research results to latest CDC data suggests that up to 2.5 million older people may have been affected by prolonged COVID. For such people, the consequences can be devastating: onset of disability, inability to work, reduced ability to perform daily activities, and a lower quality of life.

But in many older people, long-term COVID is difficult to recognize.

“The problem is that non-specific symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, pain, confusion and increased weakness are often observed in seriously ill older people. Or people might think, “It’s just part of aging,” said Dr. Charles Thomas Alexander Semelka, research fellow in geriatric medicine at Wake Forest University.

Ann Morse, 72, of Nashville, Tennessee, was diagnosed with COVID in November 2020 and recovered at home after a trip to the emergency room and follow-up home visits by nurses every few days. Soon she began to have problems with memory, attention and speech, as well as sleep problems and severe fatigue. Although she has improved somewhat, some cognitive problems and fatigue persist to this day.

“It was frustrating that I was telling people about my symptoms and they were like, ‘Oh, that’s how we are, too,’ like it was about getting older,” she told me. “And I am, but it happened to me all of a sudden, almost overnight.”

Bell, a Nashville singer-songwriter, found it difficult to get adequate follow-up attention after spending two weeks in intensive care and another five weeks in a nursing home receiving rehab therapy.

“I didn’t get answers from my usual doctors about my breathing and other issues. They said take some over-the-counter sinus medication and stuff like that,” he said. Bell said his real recovery began after he was recommended to specialists at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

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James Jackson, director of long-term outcomes at the Vanderbilt Center for Critical Illness, Brain Dysfunction and Survival, leads several long-term COVID support groups that Morse and Bell attend and has worked with hundreds of such patients. He estimates that about a third of older people have some degree of cognitive impairment.

“We know that there are significant differences between young and old brains. The young brain is more plastic and efficient in recovery, and our young patients appear to be able to recover their cognitive functions more quickly,” he said.

In extreme cases, COVID infections can lead to dementia. This may be because older people who are severely ill with COVID are at high risk. developing delirium – an acute and sudden change in mental status associated with subsequent development of dementiasaid Dr. Liron Sinwanigeriatrician and assistant professor at Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York.

The brains of older patients could also be damaged due to oxygen deprivation or inflammation. Or the disease processes underlying dementia may already be in place, and COVID infection may serve as a tipping point, accelerating the onset of symptoms.

Research done Sinwani and colleagues, published in March, found that 13% of COVID patients aged 65 or older admitted to Northwell Health in March 2020 or April 2020 had signs of dementia a year later.

Dr. Thomas Gut, chair of the department of medicine at Staten Island University Hospital, which opened one of the first COVID clinics in the US, observed that COVID disease can cause older people with pre-existing conditions such as heart failure or lung disease to , “more edge” to a more serious violation.

He said that especially in the elderly, “it is difficult to determine what is directly related to COVID, and what is the progression of the conditions that they already have.”

This is not the case for Richard Gard, 67, who lives near New Haven, Connecticut, a self-described “very healthy and fit” sailor, scuba diver and music teacher at Yale who contracted COVID in March 2020. the first COVID patient to be treated at Yale University Hospital in New Haven, where he was in critical condition for 2.5 weeks, including five days in intensive care and three days on a ventilator.

Two years later, Gard spent more than two months in the hospital, usually with heart attack-like symptoms. “If I tried to climb stairs or 10 feet, I almost passed out from exhaustion, and the symptoms began – severe chest pain radiating up the arm to the neck, shortness of breath, sweating,” he said.

Dr. Erica Spatz, director of the Heart Disease Prevention Program at Yale University, is one of Garda’s physicians. “The more severe the COVID infection and the older you are, the more likely you are to develop cardiovascular complications,” she said. Complications include weakening of the heart muscle, blood clots, abnormal heart rhythms, damage to the vascular system, and high blood pressure.

Gard’s life has changed in ways he never imagined. Unable to work, he takes 22 medications and is still only able to walk for 10 minutes on level ground. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a common unwanted companion.

“Many times it was difficult to continue, but I tell myself that I just have to get up and try again,” he told me. “Every day that I feel a little better, I tell myself that I am adding another day or week to my life.”

Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service. It is an editorial independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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