This mental problem is a key sign of COVID-19 in frail, older people

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In a new study, researchers found that delirium—a state of acute confusion associated with a higher risk of serious illness and death—is a key symptom of COVID-19 in frail, older people.

The findings highlight that doctors and carers should be aware of delirium as a possible early warning sign of COVID-19 in the elderly, even in the absence of more typical symptoms such as cough or fever.

The research was conducted by a team at King’s College London and elsewhere.

In the study, the team analyzed data from two groups of older people aged 65 or over from March through May.

The first group included 322 patients admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 who had tested positive for COVID-19, while the second comprised 535 users of the COVID Symptom Study app who reported having had a positive test result.

They found that older adults admitted to hospital who were classified as frail according to a standard scale were more likely to have had delirium as one of their symptoms than people of the same age who were not classed as frail.

Delirium, along with tiredness and breathlessness, were also more common in frailer users of the COVID Symptom Study app with COVID-19, compared with fitter people of the same age.

A third of app users experiencing delirium did not report suffering the ‘classic’ COVID-19 symptoms of cough and fever, while delirium was the only symptom for around one in five (18.9%) of hospitalized patients.

Frailty in the group of hospitalized patients was measured using the Clinical Frailty Scale (CFS) test, which is administered by a doctor.

COVID Symptom Study App users were asked to complete a short questionnaire asking about their health, which is comparable to the CFS.

This is the first study showing that delirium is a likely symptom of COVID-19 in frail older adults, although the precise biological connection between the two conditions still needs to be understood.

The findings also highlight the need for systematic assessment of frailty for older people, along with awareness and screening for delirium for this vulnerable population in hospitals, care homes, and the community.

One author of the study is a clinical fellow and geriatrician Dr. Rose Penfold.

The study is published in the journal Age and Ageing.

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