By Margaret E. Vaughan, MD FACP | Internal Medicine
It’s a common misconception that vaccines are just for kids. This assumption typically develops because the bulk of immunizations against Infectious Diseases have occurred during childhood. However, the truth is that older adults – those 50 and up – need vaccinations too. They can have a weakened immune system, faded prior immunity, and chronic health conditions which make them more vulnerable to infections that are preventable with routine adult vaccinations.
There is ample evidence that many seniors don’t follow vaccination guidelines set for their age group by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A government report released in 2013 found that immunization rates are staggeringly low among those 65 and older, with only 15% being vaccinated against shingles, 50% against tetanus, and 62% against pneumococcus, and influenza faring slightly better at 65%.
The lack of awareness of the importance of adult vaccinations coupled with myths about the risks of vaccines, can lead to a gap in vaccinations administered to adults. There are many unfounded fears about vaccine safety which have been circulated, but vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and effective. Some people with chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease – which of course are more common as we get older – somehow believe the vaccinations could worsen their condition. This is not true. In virtually every case, vaccines protect those with chronic illnesses from dangerous complications of chronic health conditions. According to the CDC, vaccinations are linked with lower rates of some cardiac problems amongst those with heart disease. The influenza vaccination has been linked with lower hospitalizations among those with diabetes and chronic lung disease as well.
Some vaccinations recommended for older adults include the seasonal influenza vaccine, pneumococcal vaccinations, shingles (zoster) vaccine, Tdap (Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis) vaccine, Hepatitis B vaccine. This list is not inclusive since vaccination recommendations are ultimately based on a patient’s age, medical history, occupation, life style and travel status.
Seasonal flu (Influenza Vaccine): The flu may not seem like a big deal, but when it combines with pneumonia – a common complication among the aging – it leaps into one of the top 10 causes of death for those over age 65 in United States according to the National Council of Aging. You should get the flu shot annually, preferably before flu season begins in October.
Pneumococcal Vaccine: Common conditions resulting from infection with pneumococcal disease include pneumonia, meningitis, and bacteremia a bloodstream infection. Pneumococcal disease kills 18,000 Americans 65 and older each year. The vaccine is given in two shots about 6-12 months apart which provides protection from the most common strains of pneumonia.
Shingles (zoster) Vaccine: A painful rash caused by the same virus that triggers chickenpox affects one in three adults most of whom are 60 and older. Severe side effects also disproportionately affect aging adults, including fever, exhaustion, lack of appetite and potentially post herpetic neuralgia (which is persistent pain even with resolution of the rash). You can get this vaccination even if you already had the shingles since shingles can reoccur or result in post herpetic neuralgia.
Tdap (Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis): Tetanus enters the body through a cut or wound whereas Diphtheria and Pertussis are transmitted from person to person. All three of the diseases which the Tdap vaccine is designed to thwart, are serious and every adult should get the shot if they didn’t receive it as an adolescent, then a booster shot is needed every 10 years afterwards.
Hepatitis B vaccine: A contagious virus transmitted through bodily fluids affecting the liver due to the hepatitis B virus, can be deadly in older adults because the liver and its function change as we age. Chronic hepatitis B can lead to liver damage or death. Get the vaccine in a series of three injections over six months.
Even if you’re taking prescription medication to manage chronic health conditions, vaccines are still one of the safest methods to protect your health. Speak to your doctor about which vaccinations are appropriate for you. By including an annual vaccination conversation as part of your Annual Health Maintenance discussion with your doctor, you will be better able to keep yourself, your family, and your community healthy.