Potential Long-Term Effects of Pneumonia

By Eric Carter

Pneumonia is a lung infection that can affect anyone at any age. It makes it difficult to breathe, but most individuals return to their healthy selves within a few weeks. In seniors, however, the infection can be more severe — even deadly — and can have lasting effects. Let’s explore some of the long-term effects that seniors may face after a battle with pneumonia. 

Pneumonia-Related Complications 

Reduced Cognitive Function 

In some studies, older adults who were treated for pneumonia were twice as likely to develop cognitive impairments. While some cognitive impairment was mild and did not affect activities of daily living, some seniors experienced a more severe decline in cognitive function. In one study, approximately 1 in 4 adults who were hospitalized for pneumonia suffered from moderate to severe cognitive impairment. This impairment spanned across multiple domains of cognition, including: 

  • Memory 
  • Attention 
  • Spatial relationships (like perception and depth) 

While reduced cognitive function could be due to an already identified link between acute hospitalization and cognitive function, the fact that pneumonia is one of the most common causes of hospitalization among older adults suggests a strong correlation. But more research is required to determine the full relationship between cognition and pneumonia. 

Increased Depression 

Seniors who have suffered with pneumonia are also at an increased risk of depression. Just like with cognitive function, depression could be the result of any hospital stay. Time spent away from home and loved ones while struggling with health challenges is enough to put anyone in a vulnerable state.  

But there is also another relationship between pneumonia and depression. Depression is actually a risk factor for pneumonia. Approximately 1 in 20 pneumonia hospitalizations in older Americans could be attributed to depression. This could be because depression leads to poorer overall health. But depression can also cause an increase of inflammatory proteins in the body, which can increase a risk of pneumonia hospitalization.  

Therefore, depression and pneumonia have a vicious cycle of rehospitalization. A senior with depression is more prone to develop pneumonia and require hospitalization, and a senior hospitalized with pneumonia is more likely to become depressed. Luckily, there are proactive ways to help deal with depression in seniors to help break this cycle.  

Lung Damage 

Because pneumonia is a lung infection, it has the potential to cause long-term damage to the lungs — although this is unlikely. Pneumonia causes the lung sacs to fill up with pus, making it hard to breathe. Usually, the air sacs clear and are able to function normally. However, severe pneumonia can make it hard for the body to clear the fluid, reducing lung capacity and making it difficult to breathe for months. It could also leave scarring in some cases. Scar tissue is thicker and less elastic than regular lung tissue, making it more difficult for the lungs to function like normal.  

Pneumonia caused by COVID-19 has shown to be more severe than other forms of pneumonia, and it is the most likely to damage the lungs long term. This is likely because this type of pneumonia affects both lungs and tends to be more aggressive. But this type of pneumonia is new, so we won’t know the type of lasting effects COVID pneumonia will have on seniors.  

Organ Failure 

Another result of severe pneumonia is acute (or short-term) respiratory failure. This occurs if the lungs fill up with too much fluid and aren’t able to provide the body with enough oxygen. Your organs need oxygen to function properly, so if their oxygen demand isn’t met, they shut down.  

Pneumonia could also affect the effectiveness of the heart to pump. One way is that pneumonia can cause bacteria to spread from the lungs throughout the body. You could develop septic shock, which causes blood pressure to drop to dangerous levels. Due to the low pressure, the heart can’t pump enough blood to the rest of the body. These bacteria could also enter the heart itself, causing it to pump ineffectively. As a result of the heart not providing enough oxygen to the body, a senior could be at a higher risk of organ failure — like kidney or heart failure.  

Organ failure can significantly impact a senior’s ability to perform tasks of daily living and enjoy life the way they used to. And organ failure can result in death  

Avoiding Complications by Preventing Pneumonia 

While most individuals will recover from pneumonia without long-term effects, some may struggle to return to their full health and may never recover. That’s why pneumonia prevention is so important. Most cases of pneumonia can be prevented with proper hand washing, disinfecting, etc.  

Read our blog post to learn more about steps you can take to prevent pneumonia: How to Prevent Pneumonia at Home. 

If you or a loved one struggles with effects from pneumonia, we can help. Our team of care experts are specially trained to assist in activities of daily living to help seniors remain healthy, happy, and home. Reach out to a care team near you to learn more.  

Personalized care for seniors with pneumonia

Tags: Pneumonia