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How COVID 19 Affects Underlying Health Conditions in Aging Adults

Last updated on: Friday, 5 May 2023
  • What You'll Learn

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus. Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that cause disease in animals and humans. Per the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, many of these diseases circulate among camels, cats, and bats and sometimes evolve to infect people. Human coronaviruses were first discovered in the mid-1960s—a novel coronavirus that causes the disease coronavirus disease 2019 emerged in a food market in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Human to human transmission occurs through close contact.

According to the World Health Organization, most people with COVID-19 experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and recovery without treatment. However, older people with underlying health conditions or medical problems are more likely to develop serious illness. Prevention is an important part, and the WHO recommends to wash your hands regularly, maintain distance between people coughing and sneezing, avoid touching your face, cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough, stay home if you are unwell, and refrain from smoking and other activities that weaken lungs.

COVID-19 and Seniors with Underlying Health Conditions

Older adults are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, which increases with age. The person with the virus may require hospitalization, intensive care, or a ventilator to help them breathe, and they may die. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, your risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases as you get older. People in the 60s and 70s are, in general, at higher risk for severe illness than people in their 50s, yet people in their 50s are at a higher risk than people in their 40s. The greatest risk for severe illness from the virus is among those aged 85 and older.

There are significant factors that increase your risk for severe illness, such as underlying health conditions. Seniors should understand the risk involved, especially if they have underlying health conditions. Overall, people of any age with chronic medical conditions, including lung disease, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, dementia, and stroke. According to Health Canada, the risk of experiencing adverse outcomes from COVID-19 is elevated for older adults with certain underlying medical conditions. In May 2020, 67% of Canadians who were hospitalized and 63% who were admitted to intensive care were aged 60 or older.

At the time of this information, most cases or 74% of them hospitalized reported one or more pre-existing chronic conditions. The virus has significantly impacted seniors in long-term care homes. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information and information published in June 2020, Canada’s long-term care sector has been especially hard hit by the pandemic. At the time of this report, more than 840 outbreaks were reported in long-term care facilities and retirement homes, accounting for more than 80% of all COVID-19 deaths in the country.

The Effects of COVID-19 and Symptoms

There are many types of coronaviruses, and some give the person the common cold. However, the new coronavirus 2019 affects a person slightly differently. The virus infects the body by entering healthy cells and multiplies throughout the body. The virus latches itself on healthy cells, especially those in your lungs—the virus hijacks healthy cells, takes command, and even kills some healthy cells. The virus is spread through person to person contact. Within two to 14 days, your immune system may respond with fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, chills, body aches, headache, sore throat, congestion, loss of taste and smell, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea.

The virus moves through the respiratory tract, which includes your mouth, nose, throat, and lungs—the virus is likely to travel deeper into the lower airways. A person’s lungs may become inflamed, making it tough for the person to breathe, leading to pneumonia. For most people, the symptoms end with a cough, but the infection gets more severe for some. Within about five to eight days after symptoms begin, the individual has shortness of breath. Finally, acute respiratory distress syndrome beings a few days later. The problem causes rapid breathing, a fast heart rate, dizziness, and sweating, and the damage done to the tissues and blood vessels in your alveoli makes it harder or impossible to breathe.

COVID-19, Cancer, Diabetes, Obesity and other Health Conditions

According to Diabetes Canada, people living with diabetes, like seniors, with poor glycemic control have an increased risk for some infections. Studies have shown that diabetes is one of the major comorbidities associated with the development of severe COVID-19 related adverse outcomes and mortality. Someone living with diabetes and contracts the virus is at a higher risk of developing adult respiratory distress syndrome, pneumonia, excessive uncontrolled inflammation responses, and a hypercoagulable state. Among those with diabetes, the odds of in-hospital death from COVID-19 has been found to be 2.85 times higher.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, if you have cancer, you are at a higher risk for more serious outcomes of COVID-19. Cancer is considered an underlying medical condition, and some cancer treatments weaken the immune system making it harder to fight infections. Some cancers such as leukemia, multiple myeloma, and lymphoma start in cells of the immune system. These cancers affect the bone marrow, so it cannot make enough healthy white blood cells. Moreover, surgeries and other medical procedures break the skin or mucous membrane, which allows organisms to enter the body.

Additionally, obesity is defined as a body mass index between 30kg/m² and <40kg/m² or above. Being obese increases your risk of severe illness from COVID-19 because of many people who are obese struggle with diabetes and other underlying health conditions. Even heart conditions and other cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases increase your risk from the virus. Heart conditions like heart failure, coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathies, pulmonary hypertension. Having chronic liver disease such as alcohol-related liver disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and especially cirrhosis might increase your risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

How Do Seniors with Underlying Health Conditions Stay Healthy to Prevent Contracting COVID-19

There are certain steps that seniors with underlying health conditions can take to reduce their risk of getting COVID-19. However, there is no way to ensure a zero risk of infection, so it is important to understand the risk and know how to be as safe as possible. Initially, per the CDC, they can limit interactions with other people as much as possible. For example, delay or cancel a visit if you or your visitors have symptoms of COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone with the virus in the last 14 days. Anyone who has had close contact with a person with COVID-19 should stay home and monitor for symptoms.

Generally, per the CDC, the more people you interact with, the more closely you interact with them, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread. Seniors with underlying health conditions should practice social distancing when they can, wear masks as a preventative measure, wash their hands often, and limit contact with commonly touched surfaces or shared items. Seniors should focus on staying healthy during the pandemic. It is recommended for seniors with an increased risk of severe illness receive recommended vaccinations against influenza and pneumococcal disease. Continue your medicines, have at least a 30-day supply, do not delay getting emergency care, call your healthcare providers if you have concerns, and have a health care provider.

Seniors living in assisted living facilities or retirement homes should also take extra steps. Most of these facilities across the country have protocols in place, such as rules for visitors like wearing a mask and social distancing. Healthcare workers are routinely checked for symptoms, and activities are usually limited within these facilities to keep residents distanced from each other and safe. However, practice physical distancing but not social isolation. Seniors should stay connected to their families, whether virtually or in-person, while mitigating risk when needed.