Kim Elliott, RN, Expert on Healthy Aging

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05 August 2019

Every fall, as the leaves change and temperatures begin to cool, you usually hear reminders to get your flu shot. That’s because cooler temperatures can weaken your immune system, strengthen the outer shells of viruses, making them more resilient and easier to spread from person to person.

But if you’re 65 or older, the flu shot is probably not the only vaccine you should be thinking about. August is National Immunization Awareness Month, so let’s talk about the other shots you should consider adding to your vaccination schedule. Talk with your doctor or healthcare provider and see which are recommended for you. Think of vaccinations as an investment in your wellness. It’s preventive care that helps you stay healthier.

If you’re not up-to-date on your vaccines, you’re not alone. According to a 2017 report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 30 percent of adults 65 years and older skipped their flu shot in 2016 and about two-thirds didn’t receive the recommended shingles vaccine.

Our immune systems naturally tend to weaken over time, putting us at higher risk for certain diseases as we age. That’s why the CDC recommends the following vaccinations for most adults 65 and older:

  1. Influenza

You probably already know that an annual flu shot is a must-have for older adults. According to the CDC, people 65 and older account for more than 60 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations and between 70 and 90 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths. Ask your healthcare provider about the flu vaccine specifically developed for people 65 and older; it may improve your chances of avoiding the flu. Not only are you protecting yourself when you get the flu shot, but you’re also protecting friends and family, too, by preventing the spread of the virus. Flu season usually runs from November to March, so early fall is the best time to be vaccinated to give your body time to build up antibodies.

If you are 65 or older, the CDC recommends getting a high-dose flu vaccine. There is a misconception that the vaccine has a higher dose of the virus in it, which could be dangerous for older adults with weaker immune systems. Actually, high dose really means the vaccine has four times the amount of antigen—the part of the vaccine that promotes antibody creation within the body—which helps the body’s immune system respond better to the vaccine. A high dose flu vaccine is 24 percent more effective in preventing the flu in individuals age 65 and older, relative to a standard-dose vaccine.

  1. Shingles

Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a painful skin rash caused by the chickenpox virus which remains dormant in most adults who had chickenpox as a child. According to the CDC, your risk for shingles increases as you get older, and almost 1 out of every 3 people in the United States will develop shingles sometime in their lifetime. While the painful blisters tend to clear up in two to four weeks, the nerve pain can continue for months or even years.

The CDC recommends the shingles vaccine for adults 60 years and older and protection from the vaccine lasts about five years. According to the CDC, Zostavax®, the first shingles vaccine, reduced the risk of shingles by 51 percent and the risk for nerve pain, also known as post-herpetic neuralgia, by 67 percent based on a large study of more than 38,000 adults aged 60 years or older. 

A new shingles vaccine, Shingrix, is now available and the CDC is recommending this version over the earlier version of the vaccine because it is 90 percent effective. This two-dose version is recommended for people 50 years and older and the two doses are given several months apart.

In our Brookdale communities, we encourage all of our residents to get the shingles vaccine. The older you are when you get shingles, the more likely you are to have more serious side effects including loss of appetite, fever and fatigue. This can lead to more complications, more infections and an overall decline in health. The shingles vaccine is an easy way to bolster your immune system and avoid a painful condition with serious side effects.

  1. Pneumococcal 

Here’s a vaccine fewer people know about. While you may not have heard of pneumococcal, you have probably heard of the infections you can develop from these bacteria, such as pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, and meningitis, an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. The CDC reports that pneumococcal disease kills 18,000 adults 65 and older each year. A weakening immune system means that older adults are at greater risk, and can face more severe side effects, especially those who are managing chronic diseases.

The pneumococcal vaccine—you may hear people call it the pneumonia vaccine—is actually two shots given about a year apart—PCV13 (Prevnar 13) and PPSV23­ (Pneumovax 23). The CDC recommends that all adults 65 and older have both shots, a year apart, with the PCV13 first.

  1. Tdap booster (Tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis)

Chances are you had the DTaP vaccine (Diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, also known as whooping cough) as a child followed by the Tdap booster as a teen or adult.  If you didn’t get a booster, you should get one now. This is especially important if you plan to spend time with an infant, as the bacteria that causes whooping cough is highly contagious and can be life-threatening for children younger than 12 months.  And if you had the Tdap booster (you can only get this booster once), you probably need the Td booster, which the CDC recommends you get every 10 years throughout your life, to protect against tetanus and diphtheria.

At Brookdale, we want to invest in the wellness of our residents, and vaccinations are an important part of that preventative care. As part of our commitment to building healthier communities as a whole, we partner with CVS Pharmacy to offer most of these vaccines to both our residents and associates. It’s part of our proactive approach to wellness and clinical care. Think of it as “health equity”—an investment in your health today to yield more value tomorrow. Instead of just responding to illnesses or conditions with post-acute care, we want to offer more proactive options to help our residents live well and age well.

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