Older Americans More Susceptible to Long COVID
For the past 2½ years, we've heard more about COVID-19 than we'd care to. I can't recall a day when I didn't read, hear or see something about it.
Of all the many aspects of this pandemic, one that is of particular interest to me is how differently people react to the virus.
I'll bet millions of people around the world were infected and never knew it. Because they didn't experience any symptoms. Probably millions of others only had mild symptoms and didn't get tested.
Yes, there were plenty of people who tested positive. At last count I believe it was about 85 million in the United States. Many of them got very sick. Some were hospitalized. Far too many died.
What has many scientists and CDC officials baffled is why some people suffer from what's been called "long COVID." This refers to ongoing or new health problems occurring at least four weeks after an infection.
Growing Number Report Persisting Symptoms
Millions who were diagnosed with the virus – as long as two years ago – still experience lingering symptoms. Especially older Americans.
The CDC made this statement in a recent Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. "A growing number of persons previously infected with SARS-CoV-2… have reported persistent symptoms.
"Or the onset of long-term symptoms, four or more weeks after acute COVID-19. These symptoms are commonly referred to as post-COVID conditions. Or long COVID."
A study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) reported that 32% of older adults in the U.S who survived COVID infections had long COVID symptoms. The study involved more than 87,000 adults 65 and older who were infected in 2020.
Dr. Ken Cohen is co-author of the BMJ study. He isn't surprised older Americans are more at risk. "On average, older adults are less resilient," he said. "They don't have the same ability to bounce back from serious illness."
Wide Variety of Symptoms
What are long COVID symptoms? As you'd expect, there are many. And they're all across the board.
General symptoms include fatigue, plus muscle and joint pain. Respiratory symptoms include shortness of breath. Heart symptoms include chest pain or rapid heartbeat.
Neurological symptoms include what is referred to as "brain fog." Such as problems concentrating. As well as issues with language and memory.
In addition to these symptoms, there are other potential issues for COVID-19 survivors. They have twice the risk for developing a clot in the lung (pulmonary embolism). Or other lung problems.
One in five COVID survivors between 18 and 64 experiences at least one condition possibly connected to their previous infection. That percentage moves up to one in four for those 65+.
The 'Why' Remains a Mystery
You'd think the more serious one's symptoms were during infection, the more likely they'd experience long COVID. But that's not necessarily the case. The CDC tells us 75% of long COVID patients were not hospitalized for their original illness.
The CDC's report on long COVID reads in part, "Some people with post-COVID conditions have symptoms that are not explained by tests.
"People with post-COVID conditions may experience health problems from different types and combinations of symptoms happening over different lengths of time."
How's that for vague? By its own admission, the CDC does not know why people get long COVID. Or which symptoms they're most likely to have. Or how those symptoms relate to other conditions.
Most Long COVID Sufferers Are Female
OK, so what about the "when?" When are long COVID symptoms most likely to kick in, if they do? For most, they merely continue from the original infection.
The CDC says for those who develop long COVID, 13% experience symptoms after one month of their initial infection. Only 2.5% experience symptoms after three months.
For those who were hospitalized after their initial infection and then developed long COVID, the latter symptoms occurred after six months.
Some research suggests that 60% of long COVID sufferers are female. If true, that would be consistent with long-term conditions involving similar symptoms. Such as chronic fatigue syndrome.
Immune Response Could Be Key
Dr. Michael Peluso is an infectious disease physician at the University of California, San Diego. His theory is that an overactive immune response to the initial infection might result in long COVID symptoms.
"We know that during acute COVID-19, some people have a really revved-up immune response and some people have a reduced immune response," he said.
"And that response can determine the trajectory of how well somebody does."
A survey conducted in Scotland found that one in eight people hospitalized due to COVID were later diagnosed with heart inflammation. Damage to other organs was also common.
Can It Be Avoided?
With no standard definition of long COVID, there is no diagnostic test to confirm it.
So, how does one try to avoid becoming a long COVID victim? Obviously the best way is not getting infected in the first place.
If you've already had it, that's a mute point. But if you haven't, continue to take precautions. Even if you live in an area where there is very low transmission.
The CDC and many other medical personnel recommend getting vaccinated. And keeping up to date with vaccines.
Other advice includes things you've heard hundreds of times. Including wash your hands regularly, wear a facemask in public places and stay away from people who are sick.
Please do whatever you feel is right to protect yourselves.