The flu shot. Do you get it every year? It’s certainly pushed hard on those over age 65 by those in traditional medical fields like doctors and pharmaceutical companies. The media claims it’s to protect seniors.
In younger people, the flu is often something that’s gotten over in a few days without worry, but for older adults, it can be a much worse affliction that if not cared for properly can even be lethal. Each year, between five and 20 percent of the U.S. population contracts a flu virus of some type. Of the 200,000 people that are hospitalized from it, more than half are senior citizens aged 65 or older. More worryingly, 90 percent of the fatalities that can be attributed to flu complications are in people belonging to this age group.
Certain conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), better known as asthma, can compound the risks facing older adults. “For older adults with lung disease, it’s even more important to be vaccinated,” says Christopher Ohl, MD, professor of contagious diseases at Winston-Salem, North Carolina’s Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Flu-related complications such as pneumonia can combine in a deadly way with pre-existing lung conditions.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend that all adults be vaccinated at least once per year, preferably before the end of October, but there are specific recommendations for seniors. They can either receive the normal flu vaccine administered to everyone else, or a new, “high-dose” version that contains a greater amount of the “antigen” substance that triggers antibody production in a person’s immune system.
A 2014 New England Journal of Medicine study found that this “high-dose” vaccine was 24 percent more effective in seniors than the normal vaccine. According to the CDC, the “high-dose” vaccine is no riskier than taking the normal version. Note that adults 65 or older should not be given nasal spray flu vaccine, intradermal flu shots or jet injector flu vaccines.
In addition to an annual flu shot, what other vaccines are recommended?
For senior citizens, a pneumococcal vaccine is also recommended (in fact, it’s even favored for people under 65 who have specific chronic health conditions). This vaccine helps protect against pneumonia, which is a very real threat for older adults. If you have specific questions about this vaccine, you should talk to your doctor.
For anyone who hasn’t gotten a vaccination against tetanus, diphtheria or pertussis (also known as whooping cough) since childhood, a “Tdap” (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) vaccination is recommended. Tdap vaccinations have reduced doses of pertussis and diphtheria as compared to the “DTaP” vaccinations administered to children. The tetanus and diphtheria (“Td”) portions of this vaccination should be boosted every 10 years, according to CDC guidelines.
You may have also heard of — or even had — a condition known as shingles, which is the common name for the condition herpes zoster, a rash or series of blisters on the skin, usually appearing as a stripe on one side of a person’s torso. Herpes zoster is not the same as genital herpes or oral sores (also known as herpes simplex one and two). It’s caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chickenpox. It’s estimated that one out of every three Americans — including half of those people who live to be 85 or older — will contract shingles at some point in their lives. It can be extremely painful, and up to a million Americans are afflicted every year. Half of this group is aged 60 or older; therefore it’s recommended if you fall into this age range that you get a dose of the zoster vaccine that prevents this condition.
Given all this information, it seems clear that getting vaccinated — at least for the flu — is the right thing to do. However, it would be improper not to at least mention that some researchers in the scientific community have doubts about the efficacy of vaccines in older adults. A 2012 article in Scientific American magazine expressed some of these doubts. It essentially said that the scientists who came up with results showing little benefit found that healthier people were the ones who tended to seek out vaccinations, making it difficult to judge the true effect of the vaccines, particularly among elderly people. Since it appeared, there’s only been a bit more research done in this area, but it’s worth seeking out medical advice on this subject if you’re especially concerned about it.
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