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Why these vaccines are so important as you get older

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As you age, it can be easier to get really sick from certain diseases. Here’s how to help protect yourself and the people around you.

Are you up to date on your shots? Little kids aren’t the only ones who need regular vaccines to stay healthy. As you age, you’re at higher risk of getting really sick from certain diseases.1 That includes ones you’ve heard of, such as the flu and COVID-19, but also some you may not be aware of.2 And getting vaccinated is one of the best ways to stay safe.  

Your doctor can help you stay on top of your vaccine schedule. Read on to learn why shots are key for older adults, plus get a checklist of the ones you may need.  

Facts about older adults and immunity 

Why are shots so important now? For one thing, older adults may not fight off illnesses as well as younger people do.1 “As you age, your immune system changes, as does your ability to fight off infections,” says Neil Gokal, MD, a family medicine physician with Optum in Las Vegas. (Your immune system helps protect your body from harmful substances, including viruses and bacteria.3) “You don’t always have the same defenses that you may have had in your younger years,” he says. 

Older adults are also more likely to have comorbidities.4 These are illnesses that occur at the same time. Examples include heart disease and arthritis, or type 2 diabetes and asthma. Often, these conditions make each other worse. And they also can make it more difficult for your body to fight off an infection.5  

For example, infections such as the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), COVID-19 and pneumonia can really damage the lungs and make it harder to breathe, points out Dr. Gokal. This can make it more difficult to go about your daily life without getting short of breath. You may have a hard time with even basic tasks such as going to the grocery store, cooking dinner or walking to the mailbox.  

“All of those are preventable diseases with the appropriate vaccinations,” says Dr. Gokal. Vaccines train your immune system to recognize those illnesses. That helps your body fight them off more quickly if you’re exposed to them.2 

Keeping your vaccinations up to date will help you be protected as much as possible, according to the National Institute on Aging.2 Here are six vaccinations recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for people ages 65 and older. 

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Vaccine #1: COVID-19 

The CDC recommends that all adults receive the updated 2023–2024 COVID vaccine.6 You’ll be less likely to get sick. And if you do get COVID-19, you’re likely to have a milder case. You may need an additional dose if your immune system is compromised. Or you may need two doses (depending upon which vaccine you choose) if you haven’t gotten vaccinated yet.6 

Vaccine #2: Flu 

You can help protect yourself with an annual flu shot. There’s good reason for getting one: Tens of thousands of people die from influenza every year in the United States.7   
 
When you get vaccinated, it means you’ll be less likely to get sick. And if you do catch the flu, you’re likely to have a milder case. Flu infections peak between December and February.8 So it’s best to get your vaccine ahead of that, in September or October.9 But if you miss that window and it’s flu season, it’s still a good idea to get the shot. 

All flu vaccines provide protection against the flu. But talk to your doctor about getting a high-dose flu shot. The CDC recommends it for adults ages 65 and over, if it’s available.9  

It’s important to know that flu shots are not made with live flu virus, so they can’t cause the flu, says Dr. Gokal. But a small number of people may feel tired or have body aches for a few days afterward, as their immune system builds a response to the vaccine. 

Vaccine #3: RSV 

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, usually causes mild cold symptoms. But it can be more severe in older adults. It may even land you in the hospital.2 If you’re age 60 or older, the CDC recommends asking your primary care provider (PCP) whether you need an RSV vaccine.10  

Optum doctors make it a priority to get you the vaccines you need when you need them. Find an Optum doctor

Vaccine #4: Pneumococcal  

Pneumococcal disease is the name of a respiratory infection caused by a certain type of bacteria.11 It can lead to pneumonia, which can be life-threatening in older adults.12 The CDC recommends that adults over the age of 65 get vaccinated. You might see a few different types of this vaccine offered in your area. Ask your doctor which one might be best for you.12  

Vaccine #5: Shingles 

You get this from the same virus that causes chickenpox. If you’ve had chickenpox at any point in your life, the virus can become active again. And odds are that you’ve had chicken pox: More than 99% of Americans born before 1980 have had chickenpox, according to the CDC.13 

Roughly 1 in 3 people may get shingles at some point. The most obvious symptom is a rash on one side of your body.14 It can be painful and itchy.  
 
But 10% to 18% of cases lead to nerve pain that lasts for months or, in rare cases, years. Along with pain, shingles can cause eye damage, vision loss and other complications.15 The CDC recommends two doses of the shingles vaccine for adults 50 and older.16 

Vaccine #6: Tdap (Tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis) or Td 

Most people were vaccinated for these illnesses in childhood. But the CDC recommends a booster every 10 years. You can get Tdap, which covers all three, or Td, which covers just tetanus and diphtheria.17 If you can’t recall when you had your last shot, ask your doctor whether you’re due. 

You may also need other vaccines that aren’t on this list. For instance, if you plan to travel outside the United States, you may need protection from typhoid fever (a deadly bacterial infection) or yellow fever (a disease spread by mosquitoes).18 

If you’re unsure about your vaccination status, talk to your PCP about the best course of action. A great time to do that is at your next annual wellness visit (AWV). You can use it as an opportunity to talk about what vaccines you’ve had and which ones might be right for you. 

With an Optum doctor on your side, you can get the vaccines your body needs. And at your AWV, they’ll create a personalized plan for you, to make sure you’re up to date on all your shots. They have your health in mind.  

Sources

  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Vaccines for adults: adults 65 and older. Last reviewed April 29, 2021. Accessed January 2, 2024. 
  2. National Institute on Aging. Vaccinations and older adults. Last reviewed August 24, 2023. Accessed January 2, 2024.   
  3. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Aging changes in immunity. Last reviewed July 21, 2022. Accessed January 2, 2024. 
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevalence of multiple chronic conditions among U.S. adults, 2018. Last reviewed September 7, 2020. Accessed January 2, 2024. 
  5. Cleveland Clinic. Inflammation. Last reviewed December 20, 2023. Accessed January 2, 2024.   
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines. Last updated November 8, 2023. Accessed January 2, 2024. 
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disease burden of flu. Last reviewed November 30, 2023. Accessed January 2, 2024.  
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu season. Last updated September 22, 2022. Accessed January 2, 2024. 
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Who needs a flu vaccine. Last reviewed August 25, 2023. Accessed January 2, 2024.  
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) vaccine VIS. Last reviewed October 19, 2023. Accessed January 2, 2024. 
  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pneumococcal disease. Last reviewed September 29, 2023. Accessed January 2, 2024. 
  12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pneumococcal vaccination: What everyone should know. Last reviewed September 21, 2023. Accessed January 2, 2024. 
  13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About shingles (herpes zoster). Last reviewed May 10, 2023. Accessed January 2, 2024. 
  14. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shingles (herpes zoster): signs and symptoms. Last reviewed May 10, 2023. Accessed January 2, 2024. 
  15. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shingles (herpes zoster): complications of shingles. Last reviewed May 10, 2023. Accessed January 2, 2024. 
  16. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shingles (herpes zoster): vaccination. Last reviewed January 24, 2022. Accessed January 2, 2024. 
  17. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough vaccination. Last reviewed September 6, 2022. Accessed January 2, 2024. 
  18. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Need travel vaccines? Plan ahead. Last reviewed January 13, 2023. Accessed January 2, 2024. 

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