Vaccines are not only for children — there are several preventable diseases that cause suffering and death in adults, and especially in elderly people who have not been vaccinated. In fact, seniors are particularly vulnerable, as their immunity from earlier vaccinations may have faded, and as their immune systems weaken they become increasingly susceptible to serious infections. The most important vaccines recommended for elderly people include those for flu, shingles and pneumonia.
Fighting the Flu
The vaccination against seasonal flu is considered particularly important for seniors, as they are at considerably greater risk of serious complications from flu than others.
The vaccination against seasonal flu is considered particularly important for seniors, as they are at considerably greater risk of serious complications from flu than the population in general. In fact, it is estimated that in the USA, 90% of flu-related deaths, as well as 50%-60% of hospitalizations for flu in any one season, occur in the over 65s. So receiving an annual flu jab is extremely important for people in this age group.
In addition to the regular dose flu vaccine, for people of 65 years and over there is also a higher-dose vaccine available, specially developed for this age group. The high-dose vaccine contains four times as much antigen — the element in the vaccine that stimulates the production of antibodies — as the regular dose, so it creates a stronger immune response in the vaccinated person. If you feel you are particularly prone to infection, you should talk to your doctor about whether you should go for the higher dose.
The immunity you receive from the flu vaccine lasts for only one season, so you need to go back for a vaccination every year. This is especially important as vaccines are regularly updated by the manufacturers, to ensure they are effective against the strains of the virus that are currently most prevalent. It takes about two weeks for the antibodies to develop, so ideally you should get vaccinated early in the fall, before the flu season really takes hold.
Protecting Against Shingles
Another vaccine that is highly important for elderly people is the zoster vaccine, for the prevention of herpes zoster or shingles. Shingles is a blistering skin rash that usually appears on the trunk, and can cause intense pain, as well as other complications such as vision problems, hearing loss and fever. It is caused by a reactivation of the chickenpox or VZ (variella zoster) virus in the body, so anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk.
Shingles most commonly occurs in people over 50, but out of the 1 million Americans who get shingles every year, more than 50% are over 60. What is more, the older you are, the more severe the effects of the shingles will be. For this reason, the shingles vaccine is especially recommended for people of 60 and over, and you should have it whether you remember getting chickenpox or not. The vaccine is effective for at least 6 years and probably more, so is not taken annually like the flu vaccine.
As well as flu and shingles, another major condition for which you need protection as you get older is pneumonia. This is a swelling and inflammation
As well as flu and shingles, another major condition for which you need protection as you get older is pneumonia. This is a swelling and inflammation in the lungs, usually caused by the bacteria streptococcus pneumoniae, though it can be caused by other factors. The same pneumococcal infection can also cause other diseases such as meningitis and blood sepsis, some of which can be life-threatening. As with other infections, the effects can be most severe in people over 65, and is responsible for around 60,000 deaths among seniors each year.
Because prevention of pneumonia is particularly important for the elderly, there are two pneumococcal vaccines recommended for people over 65. People of this age group have already been given the PPSV23 (pneumococcal polysaccharide) vaccine known as Pneumovax. Now in addition it is recommended that they receive the PCV13 (pneumococcal conjugate) vaccine or Prevnar 13 in addition, to boost their immunity further.
The two vaccines must not be taken at the same time. Ideally, it is better to have the PCV13 before the PPSV23, to get the strongest immune response, and if you have this option you should wait a year after having the PCV13 before receiving the PPSV23. If you have already received the PPSV23, you should wait 8 weeks before the PCV13. Unfortunately, however, at the present time only a single dose of pneumonia vaccine is covered by Medicare, except for those at very high risk.
Prevention of these common conditions in the elderly is actually very simple, and your health care provider should be ensuring that you receive vaccines for these conditions as a matter of routine. However, given the higher level of risk, if you feel you are not getting the protection you require, you should speak to your doctor without delay. In particular, if you have an elderly family member for whom self-care is becoming difficult, make sure you check with the doctor that your loved one is up to date with all necessary vaccinations.