Nearly 1 in 3 older adults develop new health issues after COVID-19

LONDON — “Long COVID” has become a common fear for coronavirus patients in the weeks and even months after their infection. However, new research in The British Medical Journal is revealing just how common new health issues are post-COVID among older individuals. Scientists report that close to a third of all older adults with COVID-19 in 2020 needed medical attention for at least one new health problem after their initial infection.

New health problems reported by older, recovering COVID-19 patients were quite diverse, affecting various organs such as the heart, liver, lungs, and kidneys. Mental health difficulties were also common. This isn’t the first scientific review focusing on long-COVID or post-COVID symptoms, but this study in particular is unique because it focuses solely on patients over the age of 65.

The research team analyzed health insurance plan data to identify 133,366 older Americans who tested positive for COVID-19 prior to April 1, 2020. Then, the team matched up those individuals with three non-COVID comparison groups from 2019, 2020, and a final group diagnosed with a viral lower respiratory tract illness.

From there, researchers looked out for and documented any and all persistent or new health issues beginning within 21 days of a COVID-19 diagnosis (considered the post-acute period). Scientists used the data to formulate risk profiles for various conditions seemingly brought on by COVID-19 over the next few months. These calculations included factors such as age, race, gender, and whether or not a patient was hospitalized for COVID.

Ultimately, that analysis revealed that 32 percent of older adults with COVID-19 in 2020 received medical care for at least one new persistent health issue during their post-acute period. That rate is 11 percent higher than the 2020 comparison group.

More trouble for men and the elderly

More specifically, in comparison to the 2020 non-COVID group, coronavirus patients were much more likely to experience respiratory failure (an extra 7.55 per 100 people), fatigue (an extra 5.66 per 100 people), hypertension (an extra 4.43 per 100 people), and mental health diagnoses (an extra 2.5 per 100 people). Comparisons between the 2019 control group and 2020 COVID-positive group produced similar stats.

However, when researchers compared the COVID-19 group to the viral lower respiratory illness patients, the study shows recovering COVID-19 patients only had a higher risk of developing respiratory failure, dementia, and fatigue. Across the board, hospitalized COVID patients were more likely to develop further health issues later on. It’s also worth mentioning that men, African Americans, and anyone over the age of 75 appeared to be more susceptible to new post-COVID-19 health complaints than others.

“These findings further highlight the wide range of important sequelae after acute infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” the study authors write in a media release. “Understanding the magnitude of risk for the most important clinical sequelae might enhance their diagnosis and the management of individuals with sequelae after acute SARS-CoV-2 infection.”

To be clear, this study is observational in nature and thus cannot establish causation. This paper is not stating COVID-19 directly caused all of the subsequent health problems reported by included patients. Despite that, study authors caution that with over 350 million people already contracting COVID-19, “the number of survivors with sequelae (health issues after COVID-19) after the acute infection will continue to grow.”

“Also, our results can help providers and other key stakeholders anticipate the scale of future health complications and improve planning for the use of healthcare resources,” study authors conclude.

The study is published in the British Medical Journal.

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