There's still a lot we don't know about COVID-19, but one thing that has become clear is that the novel coronavirus is not always a one-and-done situation. COVID has the ability to reinfect people and leave some survivors with long-term symptoms, known as "long COVID." Lingering symptoms affect anywhere from between 10 to 30 percent of those who get infected with the virus, experts told The Wall Street Journal. And now that we're almost 20 months into the pandemic, early survivors have shown that long COVID symptoms can last for more than a year. But depending on your age, you may have a harder time shaking one particular lasting effect of the virus.
A new September study published in the American Journal Otolaryngology has found that a loss of smell or taste is harder for adults over the age of 40 to regain after having COVID. The researchers talked to nearly 800 respondents who had tested positive for the virus and were part of an ongoing COVID-19 smell and taste loss survey that recorded symptoms 14 days, one month, three months, and six months after enrollment. According to the study, participants who were younger than 40 recovered their sense of smell at a higher rate than those over that age.
"Only age [below] 40 years was positively associated with smell recovery," the researchers noted. Among those over 40, more than 25 percent still reported having an abnormal sense of smell at the six-month follow-up. At the same time, more than 83 percent of those under the age of 40 regained their sense of smell.
"We did see about an 80 percent recovery rate in a six-month period or longer," Evan Reiter, MD, co-investigator on the study and medical director of the Smell and Taste Disorders Center at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Health, said in a statement. "However, 20 percent is still a lot of people, given the millions that have been afflicted with COVID-19."
This is not the first study to suggest that older adults have a harder time with long COVID symptoms, either. A September study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) looked at more than 350 people who had tested positive for COVID between Apr. 1 and Dec. 10, 2020. They found that people over the age of 40 were most at risk for long COVID, with loss of taste and smell being two of the most common long-lasting symptoms, each reported by nearly 13 percent of the patients two months after testing positive.
But this might not just be because the virus is affecting older adults differently. People over the age of 40 were also more likely to experience a change in their sense of smell and taste before the pandemic. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), nearly one in four U.S. adults over the age of 40 typically reports some alteration in their sense of smell and one in five reports some type of change in their sense of taste.
The experts at Harvard Medical School say that although there appears to be about a 60 to 80 percent chance of regaining your sense of smell or taste after COVID, recovery for older adults could take longer and be less than complete since these senses also diminish with age. "For some people, it's temporary, but for some, it may be permanent," Simone Wildes, MD, an infectious disease physician at South Shore Health in Massachusetts, told USA Today.