Nearly one-third of adults over age 65 developed one or more new medical conditions in the weeks following a COVID-19 infection, according to new research.
The findings of the observational study, which were published in the BMJ, show the risk of a new condition being triggered by COVID is more than twice as high in seniors, compared with younger patients. Plus, the researchers observed an even higher risk among those who were hospitalized, with nearly half (46%) of patients having developed new conditions after the acute COVID-19 infection period.
Respiratory failure with shortness of breath was the most common postacute sequela, but a wide range of heart, kidney, lung, liver, cognitive, mental health, and other conditions were diagnosed at least 3 weeks after initial infection and persisted beyond 30 days.
This is one of the first studies to specifically describe the incidence and severity of new conditions triggered by COVID-19 infection in a general sample of older adults, said study author Ken Cohen MD, FACP, executive director of translational research at Optum Labs and national senior medical director at Optum Care.
“Much of what has been published on the postacute sequelae of COVID-19 has been predominantly from a younger population, and many of the patients had been hospitalized,” Cohen noted. “This was the first study to focus on a large population of seniors, most of whom did not require hospitalization.”
Cohen and colleagues reviewed the health insurance records of more than 133,000 Medicare beneficiaries aged 65 or older who were diagnosed with COVID-19 before April 2020. They also matched individuals by age, race, sex, hospitalization status, and other factors to comparison groups without COVID-19 (one from 2020 and one from 2019), and to a group diagnosed with other lower respiratory tract viral infections before the pandemic.
Risk of Developing New Conditions Was Higher in Hospitalized Patients
After acute COVID-19 infection, 32% of seniors sought medical care for at least one new medical condition in 2020, compared with 21% of uninfected people in the same year.
The most commonly observed conditions included:
Respiratory failure (7.55% higher risk).
Fatigue (5.66% higher risk).
High blood pressure (4.43% higher risk).
Memory problems (2.63% higher risk).
Kidney injury (2.59% higher risk).
Mental health diagnoses (2.5% higher risk).
Blood-clotting disorders (1.47 % higher risk).
Heart rhythm disorders (2.9% higher risk).
The risk of developing new conditions was even higher among those 23,486 who were hospitalized in 2020. Those individuals showed a 23.6% higher risk for developing at least one new condition, compared with uninfected seniors in the same year. Also, patients older than 75 had a higher risk for neurological disorders, including dementia, encephalopathy, and memory problems. The researchers also found that respiratory failure and kidney injury were significantly more likely to affect men and Black patients.
When those who had COVID were compared with the group with other lower respiratory viral infections before the pandemic, only the risks of respiratory failure (2.39% higher), dementia (0.71% higher), and fatigue (0.18% higher) were higher.
Primary care providers can learn from these data to better evaluate and manage their geriatric patients with COVID-19 infection, said Amit Shah, MD, a geriatrician with the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, in an interview.
“We must assess older patients who have had COVID-19 for more than just improvement from the respiratory symptoms of COVID-19 in post-COVID follow-up visits,” he said. “Older individuals with frailty have vulnerability to subsequent complications from severe illnesses and it is common to see post-illness diagnoses, such as new diagnosis of delirium; dementia; or renal, respiratory, or cardiac issues that is precipitated by the original illness. This study confirms that this is likely the case with COVID-19 as well.
“Primary care physicians should be vigilant for these complications, including attention to the rehabilitation needs of older patients with longer-term postviral fatigue from COVID-19,” Shah added.
Data Predates “Omicron Wave”
It remains uncertain whether sequelae will differ with the Omicron variant, but the findings remain applicable, Cohen said.
“We know that illness from the Omicron variant is on average less severe in those that have been vaccinated. However, throughout the Omicron wave, individuals who have not been vaccinated continue to have significant rates of serious illness and hospitalization,” he said.
“Our findings showed that serious illness with hospitalization was associated with a higher rate of sequelae. It can therefore be inferred that the rates of sequelae seen in our study would continue to occur in unvaccinated individuals who contract Omicron, but might occur less frequently in vaccinated individuals who contract Omicron and have less severe illness.”
Cohen serves as a consultant for Pfizer. Shah has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.