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Any member of the senior set who has survived a bout with COVID that did not require a trip to the hospital certainly has cause to celebrate. I wouldn’t wish close contact with a ventilator on anyone. But the effects of even a “mild” case can have long-term health implications.

We’ve all learned about the debilitating effects of long COVID — brain fog, coughs, fatigue, headaches, and more — so I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to hear that the virus can also create serious mobility issues for older adults, even if their symptoms weren’t serious enough to send them to the ER.

That’s what Parminder Raina, PhD, and a team of Canadian researchers concluded after an 18-month analysis of data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA). Reviewing questionnaires from nearly 25,000 community-dwelling Canadians 50 years old and older, researchers found that — after adjusting for various factors — those reporting having experienced “mild or moderate” symptoms of COVID were twice as likely than those who had not contracted the virus to report experiencing “worsening mobility” in succeeding months.

There’s plenty of research indicating that long COVID is common among those who were hospitalized with the virus, Raina notes in JAMA Network Open, but his team sought to learn whether milder cases could lead to long-term problems — especially among older adults.

“There is an ongoing effort by both health professionals and patients alike to recognize long COVID as a long-term condition and to increase access to treatments and rehabilitative care,” he writes. “Our findings confirm that individuals with COVID-19 who did not require hospitalization were more likely than those without COVID to experience worsening of overall mobility since the start of the pandemic and a deterioration in physical function at the COVID-19 exit survey compared with the CLSA first follow-up.”

Citing earlier research pointing to virus-caused neuronal damage that could trigger an inflammatory response that reduces functional mobility, Raina suggests the same process could’ve been at work in his participants. And by isolating themselves following a positive test, COVID sufferers probably found their opportunities for exercise greatly diminished, which may have made matters worse. “It is also possible,” he explains, “that public-health recommendations for quarantine and self-isolation for individuals who have test results positive for COVID-19 restricted physical activity and may have exacerbated the mobility and physical function decline.”

Whatever the case, Raina’s point is clear: It doesn’t take a full-on COVID case to create health issues well after the infection fades. And that’s particularly true for seniors, most of whom cope with various chronic conditions that may only be exacerbated by a bout with the bug. And, while researchers continue to struggle with the mystery that is long COVID, Raina suggests the path forward for older adults who’ve been spared the ventilator may be more clear-cut.

“Taken together with previous work, our results suggest a need for approaches to effectively restore functional mobility to pre-disease levels after COVID-19,” he writes. “It is recommended that approaches that promote gradual activity and enhance social, cultural, and financial support may help with managing post-COVID-19 conditions.”

Craig Cox
Craig Cox

Craig Cox is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of healthy aging.

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