Senior Health

2/23/2022 | By Kari Smith

Most of us are eager to talk about anything BUT the dreaded “c word” these days, which has rivaled “cancer” for striking fear and frustration in the hearts of so many Americans. As numbers start to decline (until the next variant), we may feel hopeful about the future. Along with available vaccines and boosters, many people have developed natural immunity from having had the disease. But that full sigh of relief never comes for those Americans who have not fully recovered. Sadly, there are an overwhelming number of patients who are still suffering from COVID-related issues long after diagnosis, with a high number of senior adults among these patients. These patients are suffering from “long COVID” and have been dubbed “long haulers.”

What is long COVID?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “post-acute sequelae of COVID-19, also known as ‘long COVID,’ is used to describe the long-term symptoms that might be experienced weeks to months after primary infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.” The World Health Organization (WHO) adds that post-COVID conditions occur in patients who experience symptoms three months after onset that last for at least two months. To count as long COVID, the symptoms cannot be explained by other diagnoses. The WHO lists common symptoms as fatigue, shortness of breath, cognitive dysfunction (commonly known as “brain fog”) and many others.

Never heard of it? Long COVID is not as rare as you might think. Estimates by the Journal of the American Medical Association and the CDC indicate that up to a third of American patients may suffer from at least one symptom six months after diagnosis. These may actually be low estimates, since numbers increase as awareness and diagnosis of this relatively new condition increase.

Patients who have mild cases of COVID may still suffer from long COVID. Conversely, patients who have had severe cases may make a full recovery from the virus. Long-haul COVID patients may also suffer emotional impacts as they adjust to a new normal where their once-healthy bodies are now dealing with heart and lung complications and other problems.

Is long COVID worse for senior adults?

“The older you get, the more vulnerable you are no matter the disease,” Dr. Avi Nath, the clinical director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland, told Kiplinger. “The same is true for COVID.” Seniors have been more likely to die from the disease and to suffer from long COVID.

“Between 50% and 80% of all patients had symptoms three months after contracting the virus,” Kiplinger reported, “and those who were at least 50 years old were more likely to report lingering issues, according to a post on the Harvard Health Blog.”

A study reported in CNN found that about 1 in 5 adults older than 70 who had tested positive for coronavirus developed long COVID, compared with about 1 in 10 18- to 49-year-olds.

How do I know if I am a COVID long-hauler?

COVID long-haul issues can vary. For some, the disease attacks on a cellular level, and the journey back to good health can involve a very broad approach including diet, exercise, sleep health, and more.

Common long-haul symptoms include:

  • Cardiac issues, including irregular rhythms and heart palpitations
  • Lung issues, including difficulty and pain breathing, lung scarring, sufficient oxygen levels, and diminished ability of the body to utilize available oxygen
  • Cognitive issues such as “brain fog” (difficulty focusing), extreme fatigue, and sleep disturbances

Seniors with long COVID are also likely to suffer with anxiety, depression, confusion, and loss of appetite. They are also more prone to mobility issues, even after mild cases of the coronavirus.

There are many other long-haul symptoms that have been identified, and the list continues to grow as more is learned about the virus and its long-term effects.

In a Feb. 7, 2022 issue of Nature Medicine, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System found that “people who have had COVID-19 are at increased risk of developing cardiovascular complications within the first month to a year after infection. Such complications include disruptive heart rhythms, inflammation of the heart, blood clots, stroke, coronary artery disease, heart attack, heart failure or even death.”

“Our data showed an increased risk of heart damage for young people and old people; males and females; Blacks, whites and all races; people with obesity and people without; people with diabetes and those without; people with prior heart disease and no prior heart disease; people with mild COVID infections and those with more severe COVID who needed to be hospitalized for it,” said senior author Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Washington University.

What can I do?

If you suffer from these symptoms after having the COVID virus, seek help early. The pandemic has contributed to a national healthcare crisis and shortage of healthcare workers. Specialist appointments – especially for new patients – can be difficult to get and may be booked up for months. This issue has the potential to worsen as more and more patients contract the disease and suffer from its long-term effects.

Given increased risk of cardiovascular complications, anyone who has had a COVID-19 infection should pay close attention to their heart health with regular routine cardiovascular care and a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Millennia Lytle, a naturopathic doctor and nutrition specialist emphasized to Healthline the importance of maintaining – or adopting – healthy habits, especially for seniors over the age of 50. These include a good night’s sleep, healthy eating habits, and daily physical activity.

If you are unable to work due to long COVID, or your capabilities have been limited, visit the Department of Labor’s website for a list of resources. Long COVID disability is available, but the process to qualify is difficult and can take time, so apply early and be prepared to demonstrate how long COVID symptoms have adversely impacted your ability to work.

Remember that slow and steady wins the race. Enjoy small victories and understand that although the process to recovery may be a slow one, movement in the right direction is a win.

Long COVID clinics

Many localities offer resources for long COVID patients. In Richmond, Virginia, for example:

  • VCU Long COVID clinic for VCU Health patients suffering from lung, heart, and neurological issues for at least 84 days (approximately 3 months) after COVID diagnosis. The clinic is at VCU’s Stony Point campus (9000 Stony Point Pkwy, Richmond).
  • Sheltering Arms’ (8226 Meadowbridge Road, Mechanicsville and 206 Twinridge Lane, Richmond) rehabilitation program offers therapies for those struggling with mobility, cognition, shortness of breath, or fatigue.

For nationwide resources, check with the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Administration for Community Living.

Kari Smith

Kari Smith is a frequent contributor to Seniors Guide, helping to keep those in the senior industry informed and up-to-date. She's a Virginia native whose love of writing began as a songwriter recording her own music. In addition to teaching music and performing in the Richmond area, Kari also enjoys riding horses and farming.

Kari Smith