Pneumonia’s Long-Term Health Consequences

Pneumonia is a lung infection that leads to the hospitalization of an estimated 390,000 older Americans each year. Some researchers say that older adults hospitalized just once for pneumonia may suffer functional and cognitive decline comparable to those of people hospitalized for a stroke or a heart attack.

To find out whether hospitalization for pneumonia was associated with future physical and mental health, researchers analyzed the medical data of 1,434 adults (average age, 77) who had been admitted for treatment of pneumonia, heart attack, or stroke. They looked at patients’ health after hospitalization over a nine-year period. After adjusting for any intermittent illnesses or chronic conditions, the researchers found that patients in all three groups often lost some degree of independence and subsequently required assistance in performing at least one daily task, such as walking, dressing, or preparing a meal.

The study also found that being hospitalized for noncritical pneumonia can be harder on patients’ future health than being hospitalized for a heart attack. Pneumonia patients who entered the hospital with no significant impairments had a harder time performing daily functions than heart attack survivors did.

Moreover, hospitalization for pneumonia was linked to more than twice the risk for developing moderate- to-severe cognitive impairment that often results in disability and nursing home admission. And pneumonia patients were more likely to develop symptoms of depression after discharge.

The researchers, reporting in the July 2013 issue of the American Journal of Medicine could establish only an association—not a direct cause—between hospitalization for pneumonia and future impairment. They’re not sure why pneumonia might induce these problems but suggest confinement to a hospital bed can weaken muscles and cause disability or that pneumonia-induced inflammation or oxygen deficiency can harm the brain and affect cognition.

You can take steps to avoid getting pneumonia, which can have severe symptoms, such as shortness of breath, chest pain, fever, and chills. The condition is fatal in 5 to 7 percent of cases. If you’re 65 or older, get vaccinated against pneumonia. If you’re younger and have an underlying chronic disease or if you smoke, you need the vaccine, too. Other safeguards include getting a yearly flu shot, not smoking, washing your hands often, and keeping household surfaces like doorknobs and countertops clean.