It took six weeks, several long, frustrating phone calls, and a consultation with Apple Care before Laurie Jacobs got her 89-year-old father up and running on FaceTime. Jacobs, who is a geriatrician by training and is now the chair of the Department of Medicine at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, was worried about how her parents were coping during the pandemic. They live in a long-term care community, but they felt isolated and lonely. Over the phone, Jacobs couldn’t tell how her mother, who has some cognitive decline, was feeling or if she was walking comfortably. “The communication at a distance is very difficult,” she says. “You don’t always get the whole picture with an older adult on the telephone.”
And, like so many other Americans in quarantine, her parents were running out of things to do. “They seemed bored and somewhat depressed by the lack of stimulation, so further ways for them to interact was very important,” says Jacobs.
The Covid-19 pandemic presents a doubly complicated situation for older people: Not only are they at higher risk of contracting the disease, and more likely to develop severe infections and die from it, but they are also the most likely to struggle with—and suffer from— the consequences of prevention strategies like social distancing. For people with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or severely reduced mobility, social-distancing guidelines can be impractical and nearly impossible to follow, making prevention and treatment even more complicated.
Seniors, especially those above age 80, have been hard hit by the virus. That’s in part because they often have comorbidities like diabetes and hypertension, which make them more likely to be hospitalized. Doctors aren’t sure why those conditions make the effects of the virus worse, but both conditions are associated with greater expression of the ACE2 receptor, a protein on human cells that the coronavirus latches onto to start replicating.
Many older adults also have chronic, low-grade inflammation, a state called “inflammaging,” in which the body is unable to control the release of cytokines, small proteins that are supposed to help modulate the body’s immune response. This dysregulation could put seniors at great risk of “cytokine storms,” a condition reported in severe Covid-19 cases during which a patient’s immune system spins out of control and starts damaging healthy organs.
Seniors are also more vulnerable because of immunosenescence, a slow deterioration of the immune system that is a normal part of aging. When people are young, the immune system has a big reservoir of T-cells and B-cells ready to fight infections. These are called “naive cells,” meaning they haven’t encountered any bacteria, viruses, or other pathogens yet. When those naive cells encounter an infection, some of them learn to recognize that pathogen and become ready to fight it off if the body gets exposed to it again. “As we age, we lose that reservoir of T-cells and B-cells,” says Wayne McCormick, head of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine at the University of Washington. “It’s hard for us to make new ones, although some people seem to retain that capacity better than others.” That means the person’s body may mount a less robust immune system response than it would have done when they were younger.
Immunosenescence also means that diseases present differently in seniors, which may make it difficult for their doctors or caretakers to recognize a Covid-19 infection. While many Covid-19 cases include fever, for example, in seniors the symptoms might also include confusion, delirium, sleepiness, or loss of appetite. That may be because the virus has reached important organs like the brain, kidneys, or digestive system. “As one gets older, the virus can invade without being resisted as much, and then some really bad things begin to happen,” says William Greenough, clinical chief of the ventilator rehabilitation unit at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. “Particularly in older people, we’re seeing clogging of blood vessels in the brain and kidneys.”