Senior man sneezing at home
(Credit: Carol Yepes / Getty Images)

Many long COVID symptoms mimic the effects of aging, leading to misdiagnosis, according to a recent study published in the journal BMJ.

Researchers estimated that 32% of older adults in the United States with COVID infections had long COVID symptoms up to four months after initial infection, more than double the 14% rate noted in an earlier study of adults aged 18 to 64. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines long COVID as ongoing or new health problems that occur at least four weeks following a COVID infection. Common symptoms, which can last for months or years, include fatigue, shortness of breath, elevated heart rate, muscle and joint pain, sleep disruptions and problems with attention, concentration, language and memory — or brain fog.

In extreme cases, COVID infections can lead to dementia in older adults or can push older adults with preexisting conditions into more severe disease states.

The BMJ study examined UnitedHealth Group Medicare Advantage plan claims of more than 87,000 adults aged 65 or more years with COVID infections in 2020. The data included symptoms that lasted 21 days or longer after an infection.

Higher rates of post-COVID symptoms in older adults are attributed to a higher incidence of chronic disease and physical vulnerabilities, which mirrored traits that led to serious illness, hospitalization and death among older adults during the pandemic.

Applying the study’s findings to the latest CDC data, Kaiser Health News suggested that up to 2.5 million older adults may have been affected by long COVID, leading to the onset of disability, the inability to work, reduced ability to perform activities of daily life, and a lower quality of life.

A Japanese research team similarly reported that the prevalence of lingering COVID symptoms varied by age group but that older adults were significantly more likely to become long haulers compared with those aged 40 or fewer years. 

That study from Hiroshima University, published in Scientific Reports, found that adults aged 60 or more years were more likely than other age groups to report fatigue, palpitations, dry eyes or mouth, labored breathing and sputum production. Common symptoms reported by long haulers in the study included loss of smell (15%) and taste (14.2%), cough (14.2%) and fatigue (11%). 

With more than 357 million people infected with COVID-19 nationwide, the number of survivors who develop long COVID will continue to grow, according to the authors of the BMJ study. Understanding the significant risk for long COVID, they said, can enhance diagnosis and management of the condition in older adults presenting with symptoms, as well as improve planning for the use of healthcare resources in the future.