By now, you’ve probably heard this warning about the new coronavirus pandemic: those who are older and have a chronic medical condition are at increased risk for severe disease and death. If you fall into this category, here’s important information about the coronavirus outbreak tailored to you.
If you look at the data, older adults and those with chronic health problems who get COVID-19 are more likely to require hospitalization and admission to an intensive care unit. And so far in the US, 80% of the deaths from the new coronavirus virus have occurred in people who were older.
But this raises a number of questions:
- What do they mean by “older”?
- Which chronic diseases are most important?
- Why does older age and chronic disease increase your risk?
- What are you (or your loved ones) supposed to do if you’re at increased risk?
“Older” is more than a number
When it comes to coronavirus, the CDC’s magic number is now set at 65. That’s the age at which risk of severe disease, complications, and death from COVID-19 appears to rise. But while risk does rise with age, infants, children and adults under age 65 have become infected in significant numbers, and some have severe disease, so everyone needs to take precautions.
Which chronic diseases put people at higher risk from COVID-19?
What do health experts mean when they talk about chronic diseases that put some people at increased risk of severe disease with COVID-19? It varies, but generally includes people who have
- heart disease
- high blood pressure
- asthma or other chronic lung diseases
- a suppressed immune system due to a disease or a treatment
Within these groups, there is much uncertainty. For example, if you had cancer years ago but are now in remission, are you at increased risk? What if your diabetes is mild and well controlled?
Why do older age and chronic disease increase risk for severe illness if a person gets COVID-19?
It’s not entirely clear, but here are some possibilities:
- An immune system weakened by age or illness is unable to fight off the virus, which could lead to an overwhelming infection.
- The immune system “misfires” or has an exaggerated response in some people, triggering so much inflammation and tissue damage that the immune reaction itself causes complications.
- Organ damage due to existing or past illness might make additional damage caused by the virus more than a person can handle; one example is smoking-related lung disease complicated by respiratory infection from the new coronavirus.
- The stress of a viral infection can increase demand on already damaged or aging organs (such as the heart).
- Medications taken to treat chronic conditions could increase the severity of infection.