Dementia increases a person’s risk of not only contracting COVID-19 but also having worse outcomes, according to a new study.
The study, published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association in February, looked at electronic health records of early 62 million U.S. adults and found 20 percent of patients with dementia died after contracting COVID-19 compared to five percent of those without dementia. Dementia patients are twice as likely to contract the virus than those without it.
Scientists also noted that other risk factors, such as race and the type of dementia a patient has, may play a role. They’re still researching what makes someone with dementia more at-risk for contracting and dying from COVID-19 but offered some hypotheses. If a loved one has dementia, this is what we know about how it affects COVID-19 and what you can do to help them stay safe and continue aging as well as they can.
CoMorbidities and COVID-19
Researchers also found that Black people with dementia had a higher COVID-19 risk than whites. The racial disparity is in line with what scientists have noted throughout the pandemic — Blacks are nearly twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than whites.
Researchers indicated that the type of dementia a person has might also contribute to their individual risk. Vascular dementia patients are three times more likely to get COVID-19, followed by people with percentile dementia, senile dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and post-traumatic dementia.
Why Are Dementia Patients More at Risk for COVID-19?
Researchers couldn’t pinpoint the exact reason why dementia patients are more likely to catch and die from COVID-19, but they do have some educated guesses.
- The blood-brain barrier. Dementia and Alzheimer’s patients have a damaged blood-brain barrier. This damage allows viruses and bacteria to reach the brain more easily, scientists noted. “We hypothesized that preexisting dementia, especially with involvement in the brain (vascular dementia), predisposes patients to a greater risk of morbidity and mortality from COVID-19,” the researchers wrote.
- Guidelines are harder to follow. People with dementia are more likely to have trouble wearing a mask or remembering to put one on. They may also struggle with social distancing, particularly if they need help from others to get around, and wash their hands.
- They may have comorbidities. Diabetes, obesity, hypertension and heart disease are risk factors for developing COVID-19 and dementia. Every underlying condition increases the chance of poor health outcomes from the virus.
- They’re more likely in a long-term care facility. Recent data shows that more than 100,000 residents and staff of long-term care facilities have died from COVID-19 in the United States. That’s about 20 percent of all COVID-19 deaths nationally.
Aging Well and the Importance of Vaccinating Dementia Patients for COVID-19
If you or a loved one has dementia, this study may make you feel more anxious. The good news is that the U.S. has three effective vaccines against COVID-19, and it’s vital to protect dementia patients by prioritizing them during the rollout. Though dementia itself is fatal, it does not negate the health system’s obligation to adhere to standards that allow for aging well for this population.
The Pfizer vaccine is 95 percent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 after the second dose, and the Moderna vaccine is 94.1 percent effective. Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine is 85 percent effective against severe disease.
These vaccines significantly reduce the risk of hospitalization and death, offering hope to all of us, especially those who care for dementia patients.