Long Covid Poses Special Challenges for Seniors

Ask Patricia Anderson how she is doing, and you probably will not get a routine answer. “Today, I’m working and I’m fine,” she said on a recent Tuesday. “Saturday and Sunday, I was bedridden. Long Covid is a roller coaster.”

Before the pandemic, Ms. Anderson practiced martial arts and did without a car, instead walking and taking buses around Ann Arbor, Mich., where she is a medical librarian. Just before contracting Covid-19 in March 2020, she had racked up — oh, she keeps track — 11,409 steps in one day.

The virus caused extreme chills, shortness of breath, a nervous system disorder and such cognitive decline that, for months, Ms. Anderson was unable to read a book.

“I was very sick for a long time, and I never really got better,” she said. On some days, fatigue cut her step count to three digits. Rehabilitation attempts brought progress, then crashes.

“It can affect nearly everyone from children to older adults, across the life span,” he said.

Though long Covid is more likely to afflict people who become severely ill with Covid and require hospitalization — and long Covid symptoms last longer in those patients — it can also follow mild infections. It can arise after the first bout of Covid, or the second or fourth.

While older people are not more prone to long Covid overall, Dr. Al-Aly’s research using large Veterans Affairs databases shows that they are more at risk for four particular clusters of symptoms:

  • Metabolic disorders, including new-onset diabetes and high cholesterol.

  • Cardiovascular problems, including heart disease, heart attacks and arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation.

  • Gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea and constipation, pancreatitis and liver disease.

  • Strokes, cognitive decline and other neurological symptoms.

Jane Wolgemuth caught Covid in June 2022, along with her husband. “He waltzed through it in two days,” she recalled. “I was in bed for a week.”

They both felt better after taking the oral antiviral Paxlovid. Yet months later, Ms. Wolgemuth, 69, a retired bank employee in Monument, Colo., began noticing cognitive problems, particularly when driving.

“I wasn’t reacting fast enough,” she said. “The brain fog was really taking over.”

After an MRI and other tests came back normal, Ms. Wolgemuth was diagnosed with long Covid. She has been taking supplements and trying light therapy, and she has stretched her walking distance to four miles most days.

She feels more herself, she said, but “it’s remarkable how destructive Covid was.”

Seniors may mistake long Covid for other conditions common at older ages. “They may think, ‘Maybe I’m just aging or I need to adjust my blood pressure medication,’” said Dr. Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez, the chair of rehabilitation medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. She has co-authored American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation guidance statements for treating long Covid.

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