From the Journals

Long-COVID symptoms a serious challenge for older patients, physicians


Even mundane tasks such as making a meal can be exhausting for Louise Salant.

“I’m totally wiped out,” said the 71-year-old former private music instructor with asthma who lives in New York City and has been coping with debilitating symptoms of fatigue, shortness of breath, and gastrointestinal symptoms since recovering from a severe bout of COVID-19 2 years ago. “I just don’t have the energy.”

Ms. Salant is not alone. Many older people who contract COVID-19 experience prolonged symptoms of the disease. An analysis of Medicare Advantage claims data published in the BMJ found that about one-third of roughly 87,000 adults aged 65 in the database with a COVID-19 diagnosis sought care for persistent or new symptoms 21 or more days later.

That figure is about twice the rate of persistent COVID-19 related symptoms seen in a cohort of adults younger than age 65 with commercial insurance analyzed by the same group of researchers in a separate BMJ study. Compared with a 2020 comparator group of patients in this age cohort, these patients had a greater likelihood of respiratory failure, fatigue, hypertension, memory problems, kidney injury, mental health conditions, hypercoagulability, and cardiac rhythm disorders. When they compared post–COVID-19 symptoms to lasting symptoms of another serious viral disease – influenza – the researchers found that only respiratory failure, dementia, and post-viral fatigue were more common in the COVID-19 group.

“It became clear early in the pandemic that there is going to be a second pandemic related to all of the complications that we’ve seen related to COVID-19 infections,” said Ken Cohen, MD, executive director of translational research and national senior medical director for Optum Labs in Minnetonka, Minn., who coauthored the BMJ studies.

The results are among a growing body of evidence suggesting that older adults are at high risk of persistent post-COVID-19 symptoms.

Researchers in Rome, for example, found that 83% of 165 patients aged 65 or older who had been hospitalized for COVID-19 reported at least one lasting symptom – problems like fatigue, shortness of breath, joint pain, and coughing – in the months after hospitalization. One-third of those had two symptoms, and 46% had three or more.

A similar study in Norway found that two-thirds of patients aged 60 or older reported reduced health-related quality of life during follow-up visits 6 months after hospitalization for COVID-19. The most-reported impairments among those patients were the inability to perform the tasks of daily life, reduced mobility, and increased pain and discomfort.

Cognitive concerns

Mounting evidence indicates that COVID-19 may contribute to chronic cognitive impairment in older adults. A multisite U.S. study found that 28% of 817 adults presenting to emergency departments with COVID-19 had delirium and poorer outcomes. A Chinese case-control study that enrolled 1,438 individuals hospitalized in Wuhan for COVID-19, along with 438 of their uninfected spouses, found that 12% of COVID-19 survivors experienced cognitive impairment a year after discharge. Matteo Tosato, MD, PhD, head of the outpatient clinic for patients with long COVID symptoms at Gemelli Hospital in Rome, called those findings “very concerning.”

Jin Ho Han, MD, associate professor of emergency medicine at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., said cognitive impairment is common after an acute illness, particularly in frail or vulnerable patients.

“Hospitalization and the acute illness itself accelerate cognitive decline,” said Dr. Han, and previous evidence links delirium with worsening cognition. He and his colleagues are studying the potential role of delirium in longer-term cognitive decline in older patients after COVID-19.

Dr. Han emphasized the importance of preventing COVID-19-related delirium through vaccines and other strategies to reduce exposure of older patients to the virus. “Once you have cognitive decline, there are no interventions to reverse it,” he said.


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