1 in 3 older adults develops new health problems after COVID-19, study finds

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Older adults appear to be at increased risk for long-term health problems after COVID-19, according to a new study. File photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

Nearly one in three older adults with COVID-19 develops at least one new health condition that needs medical attention in the months after initial infection, a study published Wednesday by BMJ found.

Of more than 133,000 adults age 65 and older diagnosed with COVID-19 before April 1, 2020, 32% sought medical attention after recovery for one or more new or chronic health conditions, the data showed.

Nearly half of these older adults who were hospitalized due to infection developed new, chronic health problems, the researchers said.

About one in five adults in this age group who did not become infected with the virus developed similar health problems during the same period, they said.

“Seniors have a significantly higher incidence of [health problems] following infection compared to younger patients,” study co-author Dr. Ken Cohen told UPI in an email.

“Respiratory failure with persistent shortness of breath is by far the most frequent” health problem, said Cohen, executive director of translational research at Optum Labs, a medical and science research firm based in Fountain, Colo.

COVID-19 causes declines in mobility and physical strength in older adults, who are at increased risk for infection and severe illness, previous studies have found.

Meanwhile, so-called “long COVID,” or symptoms that persist for many months, may lead to long-term breathing and heart disorders, research suggests.

Long COVID has also been compared with chronic fatigue syndrome and linked with memory and mental health problems as well as declines brain and kidney function.

In this analysis of the health of 133,366 adults age 65 or older diagnosed with COVID-19, Cohen and his colleagues recorded any persistent or new health conditions that started 21 days after a participants tested positive for the virus.

They compared the health of these participants with that of similarly aged adults who had not been infected and with a group diagnosed with a viral lower respiratory tract illness, such as the flu, they said.

People infected with the virus were nearly 8% more likely to experience lung failure and 6% more likely to suffer from severe fatigue weeks after testing positive than those who were not infected, the data showed.

They also had a just over 4% higher risk for developing high blood pressure and a 3% higher risk for being diagnosed with a mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression, compared with uninfected adults, the researchers said.

Irregular heartbeats, or arrythmias, and blood-clotting disorders also were more common in seniors who had been infected with the virus, according to the researchers.

However, compared with the group diagnosed with another viral lower respiratory tract illness, only lung failure, dementia and fatigue were common in those with COVID-19, they said.

The findings could provide a snapshot of the scale of future health complications caused by the pandemic, though they do not include data from those infected with newer variants of the virus, such as Delta and Omicron, the researchers said.

They also highlight the importance of becoming vaccinated against COVID-19 for older adults, including getting a booster shot, according to Cohen.

“Throughout the Omicron wave, individuals who have not been vaccinated continue to have significant rates of serious illness and hospitalization,” Cohen said.

“Our findings showed that serious illness with hospitalization was associated with a higher rate of [health problems, so] it can therefore be inferred that the rates … seen in our study would continue to occur in unvaccinated individuals who contract Omicron,” he said.

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