Dealing with long COVID as a senior citizen

Many people are now familiar with the symptoms of COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2), such as fatigue, coughing, fever and sore throat. Most cases of COVID-19 last a week or two, while some can linger a little longer. But for some people, COVID-19 can cause long-term effects and health issues that remain for weeks to months.

These lingering post-COVID effects are termed “long COVID.” And the elderly – meaning people 65 years old and over – are more at risk of these lingering symptoms. [1]

Now, how does long COVID work, what are the symptoms, and how does it affect senior citizens? And more importantly, how do you handle long COVID as someone 65 years and older?

What is Long COVID?

There are several terms for “long COVID” – long-haul COVID, post-acute COVID and chronic COVID. But all of them mean the same thing: long-term effects of COVID-19 that persist even after a person tests negative for the virus. In some cases, those with long COVID may not even have known they were infected.

These effects can last for weeks, months, or even over a year.

People have a higher chance of contracting long COVID if they had a severe bout of COVID-19, but even those with mild to no symptoms may experience lingering effects. You might also have a higher risk if you are unvaccinated.

Long COVID is considered a disability in the USA as of July 2021. 

The USA CDC’s threshold for “post-COVID symptoms” is 4 weeks post-infection. There is no test for long COVID, and no guaranteed way to diagnose it. But if COVID symptoms persist a month after you contracted the disease, it’s generally considered a long COVID condition.

Your healthcare provider will consider a long COVID diagnosis based on your health history – including whether you contracted COVID-19 or were exposed to the disease. [2

But all of them mean the same thing: long-term effects of COVID-19 that persist even after a person tests negative for the virus.

What are the Symptoms of Long COVID?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed a clinical definition of the post-COVID condition, or long COVID. Its own threshold for long COVID is 3 months from onset of symptoms, with a condition that persists for at least 2 months.

Some prevalent symptoms of long COVID include:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Brain fog and other cognitive dysfunctions
  • Sleep issues
  • Headaches
  • Muscle pains

The symptoms may come and go, but they all have an adverse effect on a person’s ability to function in their day-to-day life. They may appear after your initial recovery from COVID, or linger even after testing negative. [3]

How Does Long COVID Affect Senior Citizens?

For a long time, there was little documentation of the impact COVID and long COVID has on older adults. However, new estimates have emerged that of adults 65+ in the USA who contracted COVID, 32% suffered long COVID symptoms up to 4 months post-infection. [4] For some people, the symptoms last even past a year.

Meanwhile, 25% of adults 65+ who contracted COVID experienced at least 1 of the 26 long COVID symptoms. [5]

This high incidence of long COVID in the elderly is in part because of the increased rates of chronic diseases and physiological vulnerability. Their immune systems are weaker and they’re less able to fight off infections. Because of this, the consequences can be more severe – resulting in a large negative impact on their quality of life.

Meanwhile, 25% of adults 65+ who contracted COVID experienced at least 1 of the 26 long COVID symptoms. [5]
Photograph: Gustavo Fring/Pexels

Long COVID also is more difficult to diagnose in the elderly since many of the symptoms (such as fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, and body aches) are considered “part of aging.” But unlike age-related degenerative conditions, long COVID sets in much more quickly. [6] And if not recognized fast enough, the effects can be debilitating.

One complication of both COVID and long COVID is delirium, or “acute brain failure.” It can occur in over 65% of patients confined to the ICU, and increases the risk of mortality. Unfortunately, it is not present in the CDC’s criteria for COVID-19 symptoms, and often goes undiagnosed. [7]

People older than 65 are also at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular complications post-COVID infection.

How to Handle Long COVID

The most important action you can take if some COVID symptoms are persisting even after your recovery or negative test, is to seek medical attention. It’s essential to advocate for yourself despite the hurdles, even if your healthcare professional does not recognize your condition at first.

You may also see a specialist for long COVID in your area.

Following that, you should pursue comprehensive care, during which your physicians will check for any underlying conditions. These can include cardiovascular or respiratory complications, and any neurological dysfunctions. If a condition is not pre-existing and does not have a plausible explanation, then your physician may likely attribute it to long COVID.

If you successfully achieve a long COVID diagnosis, you should ensure you don’t fall behind on your physical activity. Reconditioning your body (especially your heart and other muscles) is significant to your long COVID recovery. That doesn’t mean you should start running marathons right away, though – start gradually! 

You can go for short walks a few times a week, or try a stationary bike. Alongside this, drink plenty of water so you stay hydrated. Your physician may recommend you wear compression socks and abdominal binders to support you as you go about your activities.

This also applies to cognitive activities – your brain will need rest. Avoid challenging yourself too much and slowly build up to regular cognitive activities over days and weeks. [8]

Long COVID Recovery

Long COVID can be debilitating and affect your quality of life, but it isn’t permanent. People can and do recover from lingering COVID symptoms so long as they take appropriate action and allow their bodies to have adequate rest and treatment. 

Don’t let long COVID get you down – scientific research will continue to discover more and better treatments for COVID conditions. That, alongside living a healthy lifestyle, can see you recuperate and continue functioning in your day-to-day life.

REFERENCES

[1] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/long-covid-symptoms-study/ 
[2] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/long-term-effects 
[3] https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/WHO-2019-nCoV-Post_COVID-19_condition-Clinical_case_definition-2021.1 
[4] https://www.bmj.com/content/376/bmj-2021-068414 
[5] https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/71/wr/mm7121e1.html 
[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2022/06/26/long-covid-seniors/ [7] https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2777684

Photohraph: Shvets Production/Pexels
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