THE flu can be one of the deadliest infectious diseases for seniors — Americans age 65 and older are at high risk of developing severe complications from flu, and approximately 90 percent of influenza-related deaths and more than 60 percent of influenza hospitalizations in the U.S. each year occur in older individuals, says the October 2012 issue of the UCLA Division of Geriatrics Healthy Years.

While the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stresses the importance of getting an annual flu immunization if you’re an older adult — older adults receive less protection from the standard vaccination than other age groups, explains the health letter.

Thus, it is crucial for you to understand how aging affects your ability to fight infection.

The health letter, therefore, offers these simple steps that can be taken — alongside immunization — to help protect you against flu this winter:

• Waning immunity - “Immunocompetence declines with age, making it difficult for the body to respond to infections as quickly and efficiently as a younger immune system would,” says Michelle Islami, M.D., a geriatrician at UCLA Health System.

In addition to aches and pains, and age-related changes in vision and hearing, aging also affects the immune system — “because the immune system’s major components, white blood cells called T-cells, diminish and become less diverse in function the older we get,” adds Dr. Islami — resulting in a higher susceptibility to illness and disease, and also limits the efficacy of vaccines.

Dr. Islami further explains, “Vaccines introduce a non-infectious substance that contains the same antigens as an infection into the body in order to teach the immune system to produce antibodies that will both recognize and prevent that infection in the future. However, older immune systems produce fewer antibodies, meaning there are less available to ‘remember’ the infection if it occurs later. This renders vaccines less effective.”

• Nutrition important - Nutrition plays an important role in immune response.

Unfortunately, the elderly often suffer from malnutrition and many older adults have one or more comorbid conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart failure, diabetes and frailty that increase their susceptibility to infection.

“Frequently, those comorbidities weaken protective mechanisms, such as the cough reflex,” says Dr. Islami.

Also, older adults often don’t manifest obvious signs of infection, such as fever, to the same extent as younger adults.

• Flu can hit hard - Although younger adults may be temporarily laid back by a bout of flu, symptoms can be much more severe in the elderly because they have less physiological reserve which lessens their ability to withstand trauma, such as illness — this puts them at greater risk for complications, says Dr. Islami.

“One of the more serious complications is pneumonia, and most hospitalizations and deaths from the flu are a consequence of pneumonia. Also, the comorbidities that can make older adults more vulnerable to developing flu can be exacerbated by flu,” explains Dr. Islami.

These self-help measures can help prevent the development of flu and reduce the risk of serious complications, if you do get the flu:

• Be alert for the symptoms of the flu such as diarrhea, nausea, fever and vomiting and for signs you may be developing pneumonia (such as chest pain, cough and fever).

• Flu season in the U.S. can be as early as October - get vaccinated as early as possible, since it typically takes two weeks for antibodies to develop.

• Increase your resistance to infection by getting adequate rest, exercising everyday, and keeping your home and hands as clean as possible to eliminate disease agents.

• Avoid large crowds, especially if you know that a sick person or individuals will be there, or if you are sick.

• Adults age 65 and older can now opt for a higher-dose flu vaccine designed specifically for this population to mitigate the age-related decline of the immune system.

Dr. Islami explains, “The higher dose triggers the body to produce more antibodies against the flu virus than are produced by the traditional flu vaccine.”

Also, Medicare Part B covers all influenza vaccine options recommended for adults age 65 and older with no copay, including the higher-dose option.

• If you notice symptoms you think may be impending flu, contact your doctor immediately, since you may benefit from anti-viral medication such as Tamiflu or Relenza, both of which can shorten the duration of symptoms and can prevent the flu virus from spreading in the body, says Dr. Islami.

However, keep in mind that neither anti-viral medication is a substitute for influenza vaccination — in fact, research suggests that flu vaccinations among the elderly could save as many as 6,500 lives over ten years, and that annual flu shots reduce the number of deaths among hospital patients by one half.

In conclusion, Dr. Islami emphasizes, “Side effects from the vaccine are rare and it doesn’t give individuals the flu, as it contains inactive virus.”

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