Kevin K. Johnson, Certified Senior Advisor (CSA)®
Recently I read some striking information from the National Council of Aging (NCOA) regarding the devastating impact that flu has on seniors. I have long regarded “preventative” flu shots as unnecessary. However, as they relate to the well-being of seniors, this article gave me cause for pause.
The National Council on Aging announced that it is spearheading a new initiative to help protect older adults from influenza this upcoming flu season. The educational program, Flu + You, in collaboration with Sanofi Pasteur, aims to educate older adults and their caregivers about the seriousness of influenza, the importance of annual influenza immunization, and available vaccine options.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has long recommended that older adults receive an annual influenza immunization as the best way to help prevent the flu, yet immunization rates are still far below public health goals,” said Richard Birkel, PhD, MPA, acting senior vice president of Healthy Aging and director of NCOA’s Self-Management Alliance. “Too many older adults fail to self-identify in the high-risk group for influenza or defer immunization thinking others need the shot more than they do.”
Older adults, particularly those over the age of 65, are urged not to wait and to get their annual flu shot as soon as it is available each year. The body’s immune system and its ability to fight illness decrease with age, which means that older adults are more vulnerable to influenza and its related complications. In fact, each year in the United States about nine out of 10 flu-related deaths and more than six out of 10 flu-related hospital stays occur in people over the age of 65.
Unfortunately, as we age, the likelihood of developing other chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease, COPD, and diabetes, also increases, and having one or more underlying chronic conditions further increases the risk of influenza-related deaths in older patients. Nationwide, 91% of adults 65 years of age and older have at least one chronic condition and 76% have two or more chronic conditions.
The age-related decline in the immune system also affects the body’s response to vaccination. Recent studies have shown that the traditional flu vaccine might not work as well for people 65 years of age and older. As the immune system weakens, fewer antibodies are produced following vaccination to help protect the body against infection. Antibodies are the soldiers of the immune system helping to respond and protect against infection when exposed to the virus.
The flu vaccine still offers the best defense to protect against influenza. Adults aged 65 and older have two vaccine options available – the traditional flu shot, as well as a widely available higher dose flu vaccine designed specifically for this population to address the age-related decline of the immune system. The higher dose flu shot triggers the body to produce more antibodies against the flu virus than would be produced by the traditional flu shot.
Both the traditional and higher dose flu shot options are among the vaccines recommended by the CDC for adults 65 years of age and older. Medicare Part B covers all influenza vaccine options recommended for this age group with no copay, including the higher dose option.
“Too often, the particular health needs of older Americans are overlooked,” said Dr. Birkel. “As a national voice for older Americans and the community organizations that serve them, the Flu + You initiative seeks to improve influenza immunization rates among older Americans who are most vulnerable to influenza and its complications. Our objective for Flu + You is to help older Americans understand why their age makes influenza a serious health threat and to empower them and their caregivers with information about vaccination and the immunization options available to them.”
I’m late! To date, only one of my parents, both in their 80’s, have had their flu shot. Last year I recall my mother not feeling very well for almost a week after her flu shot. I’ll speak with her primary care doctor about that during her upcoming appointment. It’s quite likely that he will hold the line and insist that this preventative flu shot is worth a possible of week of not feeling well, when taken into consideration the information in the NCOA article.
Thanks again to the National Council on Aging for helping all of us keep on top of critical issues faced by older adults.
But, as for me, I’m not getting a flu shot. Maybe in another 5-years, or after a serious bout of the flu, I’ll break down and start taking preventative flu shots. But not just yet!