As more people recover from COVID-19 across the country, many are facing another uphill challenge: rebuilding the physical strength and cardiorespiratory endurance lost during long hospital stays or weeks in bed.
Depending on the severity of their illness, this can take weeks to months, says Anne Felicia Ambrose, M.D., an associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, and director of research at the Montefiore Medical Center's Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in the Bronx, New York.
In many cases, those over 65 will be on the longer end of that time frame. “Older adults are different in many respects, compared with younger adults, and that affects recovery,” Ambrose says. For one thing, the health and functionality of various organ systems — including the cardiovascular and respiratory systems — start to decline after age 35, and the rate of decline increases more in the 60s and 70s.
"So older adults are starting at a different baseline with COVID,” she notes. In addition, the prevalence of hypertension and diabetes increases as people get older, and these conditions can both worsen COVID-19 and make recovery more challenging.
The prolonged inactivity that can occur with a severe illness such as COVID-19 can also accelerate the natural loss of muscle strength in older adults, Ambrose says. And “with prolonged bed rest, people can lose range of motion and their sense of balance.”