We have all known since the early days of the COVID pandemic that seniors were at a far greater risk of succumbing to the disease. But new research has found that the pandemic could be shortening the lives of seniors, even in those not infected.
The problem is that since seniors are knowingly more susceptible to COVID, that has created an environment over the past two years where seniors have stayed home and become more inactive in fear of contracting the disease.
Staying home more to avoid contact with COVID is a good idea, but if seniors are doing so at the price of becoming more sedentary and less active, they could be putting themselves at increased health risks that have nothing to do with COVID.
Many health experts are worried about worsening physical conditioning and mobility among older adults since COVID-19 upended their daily routine. Recent research indicates that many of those who had mild to moderate infections, even some who have managed to avoid the virus altogether, may be suffering non-COVID-related functional declines.
To date, much of the attention paid to the pandemic’s effects on the older population has focused on its frightful mortality rate: Nearly three-quarters of Americans who have died have been 65 or older.
Researchers have also reported that, unsurprisingly, older adults whose Covid symptoms became serious enough to require hospitalization often contended with persistent physical and mental health problems.
“When you’re hospitalized, and you’re older, it takes a long time to get back on your feet,” said Marla Beauchamp, who researches mobility, aging, and chronic disease at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “Covid is still impacting them in a significant way months and months later.”
But less severe disease can also affect their physical ability. Dr. Beauchamp led a recent study of Canadians over 50 who had confirmed, probable, or suspected Covid in 2020 when testing was not widely available. The study revealed worsened mobility among those with mild to moderate illness — 93 percent of whom were never hospitalized — compared with those without Covid.
Nearly half of those 65 and older who had contracted Covid reported less ability to engage in physical activity like walking and exercising than before the pandemic — but so did about one-quarter of those who did not become infected. Smaller proportions of those uninfected said their ability to move around the house and to do housework like dishwashing and dusting had also declined.
Declines in physical function are showing up in older Americans, too. A University of Michigan team surveyed about 2,000 American adults aged 50 to 80 in early 2021, asking about their activity levels (but not about their Covid status).
It found that almost 40 percent of those over 65 reported both reduced physical activity and less daily time spent on their feet since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. In this representative national sample, those factors were associated with worsened physical conditioning and mobility.
“It’s a cascade of effects,” said Geoffrey Hoffman, a health-services researcher at the university’s School of Nursing and the lead author of the study. “You start with changes in activity levels. That results in worsened function. That, in turn, is associated with both falls and fear of falling.”
Dr. Beauchamp added: “It’s really concerning to see this decrease in mobility. This is telling us that the pandemic alone has had a significant impact on older adults.”
These studies suggest that forced or self-imposed restrictions on physical activity among the elderly due to the pandemic is yet another and previously unforeseen way that seniors are bearing the brunt of the pandemic.
Not only did gyms, yoga studios, pools, adult day programs, community, and senior centers all close for extended periods, many older people also undertook fewer ordinary chores and errands and may have skipped recreational pastimes.
“If you’re limiting visits to the grocery store or having groceries delivered, or not going to visit or help with your grandchildren if you’re not meeting friends at a coffee shop — those all take a certain level of physical activity,” Dr. Beauchamp said.
And that lack of physical activity is impacting seniors’ health in so many ways.
So, what should seniors do? Beauchamp suggests doing everything they can do to fight the temptation to be sedentary, even if they are stuck at home. She suggests at-home exercise equipment like a stationary bike, doing yoga or Tai Chi lessons remotely, and talking walks where it is reasonably safe to do so.