Dementia and risk from coronavirus

Given the seriousness of coronavirus, it’s natural to ask whether a person with dementia is at higher risk from COVID-19. Find out what we know about the risks of catching the virus at home and in residential care, and the risk of becoming severely ill.

Catching coronavirus

The COVID-19 vaccine is the most effective way to reduce the risk of getting ill from coronavirus, or passing the virus on to other people. Having both doses of the vaccine offers the best protection against new variants (strains) of coronavirus. 

Now that most adults across the UK have been vaccinated, most coronavirus restrictions are lifted at the moment. However, it is still important for a person with dementia to keep safe and minimise risk.

Coronavirus is still present in the UK, including new variants which may spread more easily, and the vaccine will not be 100% effective for everyone. 

Risks for people with dementia at home

A person with dementia who has memory problems or confusion may struggle to remember how to keep themselves safe from coronavirus. This includes frequent handwashing and keeping their distance from others where possible 

This may mean that, without help to stay safe, someone with dementia may be a bit more likely to become infected with the virus.

If someone has paid carers coming in and out to support them, this may also make the person more likely to catch coronavirus.

The carers should not stop coming, but should use measures like an apron, mask and gloves.

Risks for people with dementia living in residential care

People with dementia in a care home are at higher risk of getting coronavirus.

This is partly because frailer older people have weaker immune systems that are less able to fight off infections – unless they are vaccinated against coronavirus. It’s also because people in care homes live very closely together.

The person may easily catch coronavirus from another resident, from a care worker, or from a communal surface with the virus on it.

See our information on how care homes are supporting their residents

Severe COVID-19 illness

If a person with dementia does catch coronavirus, including any of the coronavirus variants, they are at higher risk of getting worse COVID-19 illness.

The risk of severe symptoms rises steeply with age, and 9 in 10 deaths have been in people over 60.

Certain long-term health conditions also significantly raise the risk of severe illness. Some of these – heart or blood vessel disease and diabetes – are more common in people with dementia.

There is some evidence that dementia itself may add a further risk on top of age and these other health conditions, but this is not certain. 

It is not clear why, but men and people from Black and minority ethnic communities, with or without dementia, are also at increased risk. This link is not explained by age or long-term health conditions.

Does COVID-19 make dementia worse?

There is evidence that infections such as coronavirus can cause a person’s dementia to get worse more quickly. With rehabilitation, it’s possible that the person can get some abilities back, although some deterioration will be permanent.

When COVID-19 does worsen dementia this is probably caused in several ways:

  • the virus gets into the brain and damages more cells there
  • delirium is a symptom of COVID-19 in people with dementia and can lead to worse symptoms such as confusion or loss of ability
  • long COVID can cause problems with memory or concentration (‘brain fog’) 
  • invasive ventilation (use of tubes to help the person breathe) or intensive care worsen confusion.

These risks underline why, for people with dementia, it is important to stay safe from coronavirus. Follow the guidance on hygiene measures to take when out and about, and seek help early if delirium is suspected.

It is also important to get both vaccine doses. Read our information on vaccines for coronavirus

How does the government define vulnerable?

People identified as ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ are those with health conditions that put them at very high risk of severe symptoms if they catch the virus. These people are those who were ‘shielding’ (staying at home at all times) at certain times during the pandemic.

This ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ group doesn’t include people with dementia unless they have an identified health condition, including a kidney transplant, severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or certain cancers. (See the government’s full list on GOV.UK)

What does this mean for people with dementia?

Having dementia does not automatically put a person in the clinically extremely vulnerable group. However, people with dementia and many older carers are at higher risk from coronavirus than the general population. Therefore, having dementia makes a person ‘clinically vulnerable’ on health grounds, but not ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’. 

Separately, anyone with dementia and many carers are already seen as ‘vulnerable adults’ by the NHS and social care. This term is commonly used when talking about general support needs or a person’s ability to protect themselves from harm. It is not directly linked to coronavirus.

People with dementia should still be treated as vulnerable customers by supermarkets or other suppliers and so be eligible for arrangements such as dedicated shopping times.

Helping a person with dementia to keep safe and well during coronavirus

Read our advice on helping a person with dementia stay safe and well during the public, at home and in public places. 

Read advice
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