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Older COVID patients battle 'brain fog,' weakness and emotional turmoil

By Judith Graham, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

"Lord, give me back my memory."

For months, as Marilyn Walters has struggled to recover from COVID-19, she has repeated this prayer day and night.

Like other older adults who've become critically ill from the coronavirus, Walters, 65, describes what she calls "brain fog" — difficulty putting thoughts together, problems with concentration, the inability to remember what happened a short time before.

This sudden cognitive dysfunction is a common concern for seniors who've survived a serious bout of COVID-19.

"Many older patients are having trouble organizing themselves and planning what they need to do to get through the day," said Dr. Zijian Chen, medical director of the Center for Post-COVID Care at Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. "They're reporting that they've become more and more forgetful."

Other challenges abound: overcoming muscle and nerve damage, improving breathing, adapting to new impairments, regaining strength and stamina, and coping with the emotional toll of unexpected illness.

 

Most seniors survive COVID-19 and will encounter these concerns to varying degrees. Even among the age group at greatest risk — people 85 and older — just 28% of those with confirmed cases end up dying, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Because of gaps in testing, the actual death rate may be lower.)

Walters, who lives in Indianapolis, spent almost three weeks in March and April heavily sedated, on a ventilator, fighting for her life in intensive care. Today, she said, "I still get tired real easy and I can't breathe sometimes. If I'm walking sometimes my legs get wobbly and my arms get like jelly."

"Emotionally, it's been hard because I've always been able to do for myself, and I can't do that as I like. I've been really nervous and jittery," Walters said.

Younger adults who've survived a serious course of COVID-19 experience similar issues but older adults tend to have "more severe symptoms, and more limitations in terms of what they can do," Chen said.

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