Why Long COVID Is Harder To Recognize In Senior Citizens

Older adults can face different aging-related health conditions later in life. Symptoms commonly experienced include fatigue, headaches, difficulty sleeping, gastrointestinal issues, as well as mental health difficulties such as anxiety or depression (via Aging Well). For seniors who have recovered from COVID-19 but continue to experience long-haul symptoms for weeks after the fact, many of these symptoms present similarly to those associated with old age, reports the Kaiser Family Foundation. As a result, health practitioners face challenges when attempting to make a diagnosis. For affected patients, this can lead to delays in care if misdiagnosed.

Long COVID symptoms can range from mild to severe. As per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), possible symptoms include fever, chest pain, changes in taste or smell, and dizziness, amongst others. Symptoms that overlap with aging include tiredness, muscle pain, sleep problems, and more.

Now, a new study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) highlights just how prevalent long COVID really is among the senior population.

Risk factors for long COVID in senior patients

Researchers collected patient data from insurance claims and laboratory COVID test results from 87,337 American adults over the age of 65 who'd tested positive for COVID-19 (via BMJ). It was found that 27,698 of these patients had required medical care for new or lingering symptoms that persisted for at least 21 days or more after having tested positive for the virus. This number was 11% higher than a comparison group that did not have COVID-19.

Certain factors were found to increase patient risk for long COVID symptoms, such as the need for hospitalization (via BMJ). Additional study findings revealed that men, Black patients, and patients older than 75 were more likely to incur multiple long COVID symptoms.

"On average, older adults are less resilient. They don't have the same ability to bounce back from serious illness," study co-author Dr. Ken Cohen states via the Kaiser Family Foundation. For this reason, study authors noted in their research that these findings could prove helpful in further understanding the nature of long COVID in elderly patients in order for healthcare providers to better assess symptoms and determine treatment options.