Don’t Play the Numbers with the Flu

December 6, 2016

It's not too late to get a flu shot!

flu-shotRemember when you were in school, and scoring 90% meant earning an “A.” Well, 90% is not a good number when it comes to older adults with the flu. That’s because 70% to 90% of flu-related deaths occur among elders age 65+. For older adults with dementia, their risks may be even higher.

One reason is because normal age-related changes to the body’s immune system makes older adults more vulnerable to complications. These complications can include bronchitis, pneumonia, and heart attacks. Other groups at high risk of developing flu-related complications are people with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and HIV.

But the numbers are not all bad. Research shows that flu shots, or flu vaccinations, reduce infection rates by 50% to 60%. Among elders (age 65 to 74), in one study, flu vaccinations lowered flu-related hospitalizations by 61%.

Flu shots work by helping the body’s immune system develop antibodies that fight the flu before it becomes serious. While the vaccine won’t cause someone to get the flu, it can cause temporary side effects, including fever and muscle pain. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that most adults and children receive an annual flu shot. Exceptions include those with egg allergies and certain medical diagnoses.

In addition to getting vaccinated, older adults and caregivers can reduce their risk of getting the flu by healthy eating, reducing contact with people who have the flu, and washing their hands regularly—especially before touching their own or someone else’s face.

Remember, Medicare and most health insurance policies cover the flu vaccine. To find a place that provides flu shots, go to the HealthMap Vaccine Finder.

By Leland Kiang

Leland Kiang, LICSW is manager of Iona’s Information & Referral Help Line, whose staff answers questions about senior services throughout the DC metro area.  Leland also has written articles for BIFOCAL, Unite Virginia, and the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging.