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Doctors say that for people over age 50, mobility issues after having COVID-19 are more than just the natural declines seen with aging. Oleg Elkov/Getty Images
  • Researchers say people over age 50 appear to have mobility and functioning issues after even mild cases of COVID-19.
  • Doctors interviewed by Healthline said they have seen a loss of mobility and functioning in older people that goes beyond the natural declines seen with aging.
  • These issues include the ability to engage in physical activity, as well as muscle aches and brain fog.
  • Experts say it’s important for older adults to make sure they get enough sleep, eat healthy, and participate in daily physical activity whether they’ve had COVID-19 or not.

New research published this week suggests that even a mild case of COVID-19 can have a long-term effect on movement and functioning in older adults.

Scientists from Canada’s Longitudinal Study on Aging looked at 24,114 community-living middle-aged and older adults with confirmed, probable, or suspected COVID-19.

The researchers say they found that nearly twice as many subjects who had COVID-19 experienced higher odds of worsening mobility and physical functions, compared with adults who didn’t have COVID-19.

Most participants with COVID-19 had mild to moderate illness and were not hospitalized, suggesting that those effects can linger even after the virus has seemingly run its course.

“These findings suggest that interventions may be needed for individuals with mild to moderate COVID-19 who do not require hospitalization,” the study authors wrote.

Of the initial group of people studied, almost 42 percent were aged 65 or older, and 51 percent were women. Their mobility in three physical areas was examined: standing up after sitting in a chair, engaging in housework, and general physical activity.

“We are seeing that many people are having significant challenges with aerobic activity,” Dr. Mill Etienne, an associate professor of neurology at New York Medical College and the president of the New York State Neurological Society, told Healthline.

“Interestingly, they may be able to do other strenuous activity like lifting a heavy weight, but the aerobic activity poses [a] significant challenge. So, they may have trouble walking a few blocks, climbing the stairs, or riding a bicycle,” he added.

Etienne said this loss of mobility isn’t just the natural decline of getting older.

“The easy fatiguability and inability to tolerate aerobic activity is out of proportion to what we would expect for the person’s age,” he said. “Especially given that they are often still able to complete other forms of exercise.”

Dr. Suneet Singh is the medical director at the digital health company CareHive Health, as well as an emergency department doctor and professor at UT Austin-Dell Medical School in Texas.

He told Healthline he’s seeing COVID-19 affect numerous aspects of people’s mobility.

“It is not specific to any one aspect of mobility, but rather any of the constituent parts that make up the entire spectrum of movement,” Singh said. “This includes problems with the biomechanics of movement as well as problems that affect neurological function. Structurally, mobility issues from COVID-19 can affect muscles, joints, and nerves. Functionally, people are experiencing difficulty with transferring weight, ambulation, and balance.”

Singh said this type of long-haul COVID-19 may require more long-term care.

“In severe cases, without medical attention, this then leads to fatigue, deconditioning, and muscle atrophy,” he said. “In less severe cases, people can recover on their own but with a longer recovery period if not seeking the help of a trained specialist.”

Dr. Robert G. Lahita, the director of the Institute for Autoimmune and Rheumatic Disease at Saint Joseph Health in New Jersey, told Healthline he’s also seeing a wide variety of lasting effects.

These range from aches and pains and shortness of breath to brain fog and heart health issues.

“But luckily, they do seem to lessen over time,” Lahita said. “Most long COVID-19 symptoms that I see go away after about 6 months. However, we are seeing certain long COVID-19 issues like loss of taste and smell persist even 8 months or a year after infection. It’s hard to say if or when those will clear up.”

“We won’t really know what will happen in future variants, but from what we are seeing so far, Omicron does not seem to cause much long-term issues,” Lahita said. “Hopefully future variants will act like this as well, like a bad cold that does not cause long-term damage.”

There are ways to fight back, said Millennia Lytle, a naturopathic doctor, nutrition specialist, and head of coaching at the autoimmune health provider Mymee.

“If you’ve adopted some bad habits over the past couple of years, these could be affecting your resilience against COVID-19 and its sequelae,” Lytle told Healthline. “Knowing what to do requires taking stock of behaviors that may not be working any longer.”

“For example, if you used to go to bed late, you might need to go to bed early. If you used to eat one meal per day, you may need to eat several smaller meals and just eat better, in general,” Lytle added.

Lytle said eating more whole foods and fruit and vegetables and cutting down on fast food, alcohol, coffee, bread, and pasta, may help. Changing everything at once, however, isn’t advisable.

“We find people often have a pretty good sense of what is not working for them,” Lytle said.

Singh said preventive care goes a long way for managing long-haul COVID-19 symptoms. As does getting help as soon as possible.

“Much like all medical problems, the best thing is to have never gotten the ailment or disease in the first place,” he noted. “But with that said, it is an unfortunate reality that some people will develop mobility issues due to COVID-19. If you feel like you are developing any problems that deal with movement, balance, energy level, or muscle function, it is imperative to seek care as soon as possible.”

Like other conditions causing mobility problems, such as strokes, Singh said there are specialists ready to help, even without a face-to-face meeting.

“With the rise in use of telemedicine, availability of these specialists is greater than ever before,” Singh said. “Oftentimes, the rehabilitation plan can include the patient remaining at home while still experiencing guidance and monitoring by their multidisciplinary team over a virtual setting.”