As we age, our immune system becomes weaker, limiting our ability to fight off such potentially fatal illnesses as the flu, pneumonia and shingles as well as increasing our risk of developing serous health complications.
Seniors 65 and older are most likely to suffer serious consequences of those three illnesses, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Estimates indicate that 70-85% of seasonal flu-related deaths occurred in people 65 and older, and 50-70% of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations have occurred among people in this age group.
So though world’s attention is focused on the coronavirus, in which 8 out of 10 related deaths reported in the U.S. have been among adults 65 and older, vaccines for these more common illnesses are necessary.
The Alliance for Aging Research’s Infectious Diseases and Prevention through Vaccination Fact Sheet states that vaccine preventable diseases account for 50,000 to 90,000 deaths a year among seniors in the U.S. The fact sheet also highlights the economic consequences when seniors don’t vaccinate, showing that direct and indirect medical costs of infectious diseases account for 15% of all health care expenditures.
“Vaccines are important for the elderly because they are a vulnerable population and need as much protection as possible,” says Dr. Raji Majety, geriatric medicine specialist with Franciscan Physician Network.
Vaccines are not 100% effective, but they tend to make symptoms of the flu or pneumonia less severe and reduce complications and hospitalization, Majety continues.
“Older adults are likely to get more complications from flu and pneumonia in general,” she says.
It’s important to get an annual influenza vaccine, says Dr. Jennifer Earvolino, a fellow of the American College of Physicians, associate professor in internal medicine at Rush University Chicago and medical director of Earvolino & Associates.
“For individuals older than 65, it is generally recommended they get the vaccine for older adults,” she says. “It has been shown to be more protective than the lower dose version in individuals over the age of 65.”
The pneumonia vaccine is also important in protecting ourselves.
While noting that the guidelines recently have shifted slightly, Earvolino notes that historically it’s recommended all seniors get a dose of PCV13 at age 65 followed by the second pneumonia vaccine, the PPSV23.
“For individuals at higher risk for complications of pneumonia such as chronic heart disease, COPD, diabetes, immunosuppression medication, certain types of cancers, alcoholics, asthma, chronic liver disease and smokers, it is still recommended to give both vaccines,” she says. “For those not at risk, they can consider getting the PCV13 followed by PPSV23 or they can skip the PCV13 and just get the PPSV23 after a discussion with their doctor.”
According to the National Foundation of Infectious Diseases, about 1 million individuals in the U.S. get shingles every year, and half of the population who live to 85 will experience them.
Getting vaccinated for shingles is recommended starting at age 60, says Earvolino. The two-dose vaccination, done between two to six months apart helps protect seniors from what can be an agonizing and long-lasting rash and also possibly other health impairments.
“The incidence of getting shingles, which is reactivated chicken pox, increases with age and can cause quite a bit of illness and pain,” she says.
Your doctor may even suggest starting vaccines earlier than 60.
Majety advises that those 55 and older get a shingles shot, yearly flu shot and maybe the pneumococcal shot 23.
Earvolino also recommends a tetanus/pertussis booster for seniors.
“Tdap is generally recommended every 10 years,” says Earvolino. “Tetanus boosters are recommended to prevent infection following wounds such as with a rusty nail or knife. Pertussis is whooping cough, which comes around every winter and causes a long lasting cough. Pertussis is particularly dangerous for infants who haven’t completed the primary vaccine series, so all grandparents and caregivers of infants should make sure their Tdap is up to date.”
This year due to the pandemic, Majety is suggesting all adults make sure they’re up-to-date with pneumonia/flu shots.
There are also other steps we can take to stay well.
“To limit our chances of getting sick, it’s important to stay home, stay away from sick people, limit visitors, wear masks and practice social distance even with close family members to prevent getting the coronavirus and the flu,” she says. “If possible, also see if your doctor can see you virtually or visit telephonically to avoid exposure.”
It’s an uncertain world right now and any step we can take to protect ourselves is important. Vaccines are important no matter what age. For seniors and those with ongoing health conditions, they are the key to staying healthy as we age.