Long COVID Effects in Seniors
Our primary care doctors in Delray Beach regret to inform you that, yes, the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is still circulating among us. As of the end of May, the U.S. was recording more than 100,000 infections a day. This doesn’t count those who self-test at home and don’t report it.
And COVID-19 is doing real damage to many people, even after they recover from the initial illness.
Of course, we’re talking about the so-called “long COVID” or “long-haul COVID,” known medically as Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC). The condition is defined as ongoing or new health problems that occur at least four weeks after a COVID infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Unfortunately, there is still no diagnostic test that can confirm the condition, and no way to predict who will experience it.
As we’ve discussed before, long COVID can cause as many as 200 long-term symptoms in COVID-19 survivors, even those who had mild cases.
These can include:
- extreme fatigue
- chest pain
- muscle pain
- brain fog
- heart palpitations
- chronic cough
- shortness of breath
- stomach pain
- painful, itchy rashes
- loss of smell and taste
- depression and/or anxiety
Studies have also found even more severe complications, including an increased risk for type 2 diabetes.
In addition, one large study by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) found that, compared with those who had never been infected, those who had COVID-19 were 60 percent more likely to experience such long-term symptoms as heart failure, heart attacks, strokes, inflammatory heart disease, irregular heart rhythms, and potentially deadly clotting in the legs and lungs.
Effects on seniors
Unfortunately, even as older Americans were most impacted by the effects of the pandemic, they also seem to be experiencing more of the symptoms of long COVID.
A new study published last month in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found that as many as 25 percent of those ages 65 and over experienced lasting symptoms after recovery from COVID-19. By contrast, 20 percent of those under age 65 reported symptoms of long COVID.
The VA survey covered the period of March 2020-November 2021, before the highly contagious omicron variant began circulating and many more Americans became infected.
“As the cumulative number of persons ever having been infected with SARS-CoV-2 increases, the number of survivors suffering post-COVID conditions is also likely to increase,” the study’s authors wrote.
The researchers determined that of the 26 most prevalent post-COVID symptoms, respiratory symptoms and musculoskeletal pain were the most common, in both seniors and other age groups.
But among those ages 65 and older, they found that cohort was at “increased risk for neurological conditions,” including mood disorders, cognitive issues, and substance abuse.
‘Part of aging’
Another study published this month in the journal BMJ seems to confirm the VA study findings. The study looked at more than 87,000 adults ages 65 and older, and estimated that 32 percent of this group experienced long COVID symptoms up to four months after infection. (Other studies have found symptoms lasting a year or longer.)
In reporting on that study, Kaiser Health News (KHN) noted that up to 2.5 million older adults may have been affected by long COVID, and that “the consequences can be devastating: the onset of disability, the inability to work, reduced ability to carry out activities of daily life, and a lower quality of life.”
Unfortunately, some in the medical community may still attribute many long COVID symptoms to a patient’s age.
“The challenge is that nonspecific symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, pain, confusion, and increased frailty are things we often see in seriously ill older adults,” Charles Thomas Alexander Semelka, a postdoctoral fellow in geriatric medicine at Wake Forest University, told KHN.
“Or people may think ‘that’s just part of aging,’ ” he said.
What to do
Although numerous studies are ongoing since experts have acknowledged the existence of long COVID, as yet there are no specific treatments for the condition.
The federal government has launched a $1.15 billion study through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), called the Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) Initiative. The RECOVER Initiative has launched multiple clinical trials to help understand long COVID and how to treat it.
Meanwhile, if you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above and have been infected with COVID-19, even a mild or asymptomatic case, don’t dismiss them as “just getting older.” Let us know about any new symptoms you are having or the worsening of preexisting symptoms.
Such symptoms may be associated with long COVID, or with another condition we can treat. We may also be able to refer you to one of the RECOVER clinics or to other forms of interdisciplinary care that are becoming more common in medical centers around the country.
Above all, if you haven’t had COVID-19 or haven’t had it recently (some people have been infected more than once), take common-sense precautions to keep from becoming infected: wear high-quality masks in indoor settings, avoid indoor restaurants, limit train, plane, and bus travel, and be sure you’re fully vaccinated.
As the CDC noted in its report, “Implementation of COVID-19 prevention strategies . . . is critical to reducing the incidence and impact of post-COVID conditions, particularly among adults aged 65 years or older.”