Senior living: The importance of vaccines for older adults

By Dr. Emad Mikhail,

Contributing writer

With increasing age, the body’s immune system gets weaker, making the chances of getting sick higher. Vaccines help your immune system fight disease over time. They work by giving the body a weakened version of a bacteria or virus so it can make the right antibodies to fight off the disease more aggressively and effectively.

Emad Mikhail, M.D., internal medicine specialist, Primary Care, Greater Newport Physicians. (Photo courtesy of MemorialCare)

Most flu and pneumonia deaths, both of which are vaccine-preventable diseases, occur among the elderly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The single-most important way to ensure that you stay healthy and strong as you age is to stay up-to-date with your vaccinations.

Why should I get vaccinated?

Staying up-to-date with your vaccinations helps you stay healthy. It is especially important for those with ongoing health conditions like diabetes or heart disease because these conditions can further weaken your immune system.

Many vaccines lose their effectiveness over time and in some cases, you need a booster to make sure you stay protected. To check this, your doctor may prescribe an antibody titer test, which measures the amount of antibodies in your blood. This test can be used to determine if you need a booster shot or if you recently had or currently have an infection.

Seniors have a recommended immunization schedule that helps prevent disease. Failure to stay current on vaccinations increases the likelihood of long-term illness or death from vaccine-preventable diseases.

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Which vaccines are ideal for older adults?

Below are some of the recommended vaccines for older adults:

Flu: Adults over the age of 50 should get the flu vaccine each year since the vaccine is updated annually. Studies cited by the CDC have shown that the flu vaccine reduces flu-related visits to the doctor by approximately 60%. Older adults are at a higher risk for developing serious complications from the flu, including a sinus or ear infection, bronchitis or pneumonia. It is best to get the flu vaccine at the latest by the end of October to be protected during flu season, which is from October to May.
Pneumonia: Adults ages 65 and older should get vaccinated for pneumonia, per the CDC. Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs and is caused by pneumococcal disease. This disease can also lead to bacteremia (bacteria in the blood stream) and meningitis (inflammation of the brain and spinal cold membranes). Seniors are more susceptible to contracting pneumonia because of age-related chronic health conditions like diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and heart disease. Seniors who have just had surgery are also more susceptible since their bodies are already working hard to heal. Post-operative pneumonia is common and frequently results in longer hospital stays and readmissions. There are multiple forms of the vaccine that help fight this disease, so make sure to ask your doctor which one is right for you.
Tdap: Tdap stands for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. Tetanus, also known as lockjaw, is a disease caused by bacteria found in soil, dust and manure. Diphtheria affects the tonsils, throat, nose and skin. Pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough, causes uncontrollable, violent coughing fits that make it hard to breathe. All three of these diseases can lead to serious illness or death. Make sure to receive your Tdap booster every 10 years to stay protected.
Shingles: Shingles is a condition that affects the nerves, causing a sensation of burning, shooting pain, tingling and/or itching. It is usually accompanied by a rash with fluid-filled blisters. This condition is caused by the same virus as chickenpox, so if you had chickenpox before, the virus could become active again in the form of shingles. By getting the shingles vaccine, you can help reduce the chance of getting shingles. All healthy adults 50 and older should get the shingles vaccine, Shingrix, which comes in two doses that are taken two-to-six months apart. You should not get the vaccine if you currently have shingles, are sick, have a weakened immune system, or have had an allergic reaction to the vaccine.
Travel vaccines: Travel vaccines are for those that are planning on going to another country – this includes going on a cruise. They are typically required and/or recommended based on your destination, planned activities and medical history. Multiple vaccines or doses may be needed depending on your situation. Make sure to receive them at least four to six weeks before you travel so your body can build up an immunity to them.

Where can I get vaccinated?

To get vaccinated, talk to your medical provider to find a clinic near you. Most drug stores offer most of the above vaccines. If you are unable to leave your home because of medical or personal issues, you can talk to your medical provider about receiving special transportation methods or scheduling vaccine administration at your own home.

Emad Mikhail, M.D., primary care physician with Greater Newport Physicians, is a graduate of the University of Southern California School of Medicine. Mikhail was recognized as the Greater Newport Physicians Primary Care Physician of the Year for 2010-2011, 2007-2008 and 2006-2007. Mikhail is passionately committed to advancing the health of his patients and always insists upon the highest standard of care. As part of his practice philosophy, he believes that nutrition and exercise are the keys to preventive health.

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