Suggested Vaccines for the Elderly Age 65 and Older

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Donna Mae Scheib

Suggested Vaccines for the Elderly Age 65 and Older

Posted by Donna Mae Scheib on June 11, 2019

Suggested Vaccines for the Elderly Age 65 and Older

Recent studies have reported that a significant number of older adults are not getting the protection they need from potential illnesses and diseases. To be more precise, approximately 30% of individuals over 65 do not get an annual flu shot; 66% miss the shingles vaccine; 43% are not up-to-date on their tetanus shots.

Why are vaccines important for the elderly?

Yet vaccines are important at every age, and especially for the older population. As humans age, they are more at risk for contracting diseases like the flu, pneumonia, and shingles and to have complications that may lead to long-term illness, hospitalization, or even death. As their immune systems are weaker, it is just more difficult for their bodies to fight off infections.

This article addresses the effectiveness of vaccines and explains four recommended vaccines for the senior population (e.g., flu vaccine, pneumococcal vaccine, shingles vaccine, and the Tdap booster). It also addresses the issue of the cost for vaccinations and the need to have open communication with your doctor about prevention. 

Effectiveness of Vaccines

The elderly’s weakened immune system may also make some of the vaccines less effective than for any other aged population. In addition, vaccines rarely give any age group 100% protection. For example, the tetanus shot provides close to 100% protection, but the flu shot is about 50% effective depending on how well the experts predict which strains of flu will circulate in that flu season. It is also important to note that the effectiveness of certain vaccines declines over time; this is why booster shots are encouraged for specific diseases.

You might wonder then if the odds are not perfect, why should you even get vaccinated. Well, the truth of the matter is that if you get vaccinated and then contract the illness anyway, you will most likely get a milder version of that illness and the likelihood of needing hospitalization or developing more complications is considerably weakened.

What shots are recommended for seniors (65 years old and older)?

The Flu Vaccine (Yearly)

The flu vaccine that is specially designed for those individuals over 65 is recommended on a yearly basis. Flu is a very common illness that impacts the elderly population: Seniors have a high percentage (up to 85%) of flu-related deaths each year; more than half of the people hospitalized for flu complications are seniors as well.

Early fall time is the suggested time to be vaccinated as the flu season typically runs from the end of October through the end of April. Since it takes approximately two weeks to build up immunity, early fall is ideal.  However, if you miss getting vaccinated in at this time, it is still advisable to get a shot rather than to skip the shot completely or wait to the following year.

The Pneumococcal Vaccine (2 shots, a year apart)

Seniors are more apt to develop complications such as meningitis, blood infections, and pneumonia from pneumococcal bacteria. In fact, the pneumococcal disease attacks and kills approximately 18,000 adults age 65 and older every year.

There are two different vaccines to fight the pneumococcal disease: Prevnar 13 (PCV13) which offers about 75% protection and Pneumovax 23 (PPSV23) which offers about 85% protection. The Center for Disease Control advises that adults who are 65 and older have both shots, each a year apart, with the PCV13 given first. However, less than 20% of the elderly get both vaccines.

If you wear cochlear implants; have chronic lung, kidney, or liver disease; or are diabetic or suffer from asthma, it is necessary to talk with your doctor about the vaccination and when best to administer it.

The Shingles Vaccine (2 doses spaced 2-6 months apart)

A new shingles vaccine called Shingrix is now available. It is recommended that you get two doses spaced 2-6 months apart. This double-dose treatment will be 90% effective in preventing shingles. The new vaccine is advised for any adult over the age of 50 who already had shingles or who had the earlier, less effective vaccine called Zostavax. Shingrix is in high demand and it may not be available at every hospital, clinic, or pharmacy. You may need to have your doctor check around for you or you can make some contacts yourself.

Shingles are also known as herpes zoster which manifests when the chickenpox virus reactivates later in one’s life. (It is dormant in most adults who have had chickenpox as a child.) The condition often brings a blistering, painful rash which scabs over in 7-10 days and clears up in 2-4 weeks. However, up to a quarter of those patients who get shingles continue to develop blisters or have irritating, itching skin for a longer period of time; it can be quite painful.

The Tdap Booster or Td (one-time shot)

If you did not have the Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) shot, the booster of the childhood DTaP vaccine when you were younger as a teenager or an adult, then it is recommended that you get one now. This is especially important if you are around infants younger than 12 months old. It takes about 2 weeks for the whooping cough portion of the vaccine to be totally effective. Whooping cough, pertussis, is highly contagious and can be life-threatening to infants. Many adults may have the illness without their knowledge. It is also advised that if you had the Tdap 10 or more years ago, you should get a booster called Td which fights against tetanus and diphtheria. This is a one-time booster.

If You Travel

You may also need additional vaccines if you’re planning to travel outside the United States. Check with your doctor well in advance of your departure so you can get the proper vaccinations and enjoy your trip.

Payment for Vaccinations

If you have private insurance, it is best to call and see what vaccinations are covered, and if not, what the cost will be. Medicare B covers vaccines that protect against the flu and pneumococcal disease. It will cover the tetanus vaccine, too, if needed after an injury but not a routine tetanus shot. Medicare Part D typically covers more vaccines than Part B. However, depending on the plan you have, you may have some out-of-pocket costs. It is advised that you contact Medicare to see about the coverage and the potential costs associated with the vaccines.

In Summary

The prevention of illnesses and diseases is often overlooked especially for the elderly population. However, it is recommended that seniors have four specific vaccines (e.g., the flu vaccine, pneumococcal vaccine, shingles vaccine called Shingrix, and the Tdap booster or the Td). You should talk to your doctor about administering these shots. Also, if you expect to travel outside of the country, discuss your travel plans with your doctor as you may need additional shots. Being vaccinated and staying current with your shots will help keep your family, friends, and community health and at the same time offer you a fuller, more healthy life, too.

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