As we get into the annual flu season (it runs from October to May), we no doubt will see advertisements for flu shots at every pharmacy we visit. But the flu shot is just one of several immunizations available to older adults, and even though we may associate routine vaccination with babies and young children, it’s seniors who can potentially benefit most from vaccines.
In getting older, we become more vulnerable to diseases and infections (and their complications) because aging is accompanied by a progressive decline in immune function. In short, immune cells called T-cells simply don’t function as well.
Other age-related factors also have an impact on our ability to fight off infections. For example, changes in our skin increase the risk of injuries through which bacteria can enter the body, while surgery presents risks because wound healing isn’t as efficient in older adults.
Slow healing also can result from illnesses that are common in seniors—for example, diabetes and atherosclerosis (narrowed arteries), both of which inhibit blood flow in the body. Inflammation is a natural part of the immune response, so if you take anti-inflammatory drugs to control conditions such as arthritis, you also may be at risk of slow wound healing.
With all of this in mind, the type and number of vaccines available has grown significantly in recent years. Not only can these immunizations often prevent disease, they also can reduce our risk of hospitalization and death while helping to avert the exacerbation of underlying chronic illnesses, functional decline that can lead to disability, and frailty.
Even so, immunization rates lag behind national goals—as is evident in the fact that about one-third of seniors still aren’t getting their annual flu shot. I recommend that you arrange to have yours in early autumn, since it takes about two weeks from when you have the shot for you to become immune. Ask for the high-dose vaccine—it’s 25 percent more effective than the standard dose.
After age 65, you also should get immunized against pneumonia. There are two pneumonia vaccines: Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine, or PCV13 (Prevnar), and an older vaccine, Pneumococcal Polysaccharide Vaccine, or PPSV23 (Pneumovax). Seniors are advised to get both, but they can’t be given at the same time. If you haven’t yet had either, Prevnar is usually given first, and Pneumovax is given one year later. If you’ve previously had Pneumovax, you can get the Prevnar too, as long as it has been at least a year since you had the other vaccine.
Another vaccine I strongly recommend you get is the shingles vaccine. One out of three adults age 60 and older will develop this painful rash in their lifetime (I’ve suffered from it myself), and some people suffer long-term nerve pain (called postherpetic neuralgia) afterwards. The current shingles vaccine (Zostavax) reduces your risk of getting shingles by half, and if you should develop the condition after having been vaccinated, the vaccine decreases your risk of postherpetic neuralgia by two-thirds.
Also get a Tdap booster shot if you’ve never had one—it protects you against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough). This is particularly important if you spend time around children, as you can get pertussis from them. Tetanus and diphtheria have decreased by 99 percent and pertussis by 80 percent in the U.S. since vaccines have been available. If you’ve had the Tdap, schedule a tetanus booster (Td) every 10 years.
If you’re unsure about whether you need an immunization, you can check at the U.S. Department of Health’s dedicated vaccines website.
BEYOND VACCINES: LIFESTYLE CHANGES MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Besides keeping up-to-date on vaccines, you can take other precautions to help protect your immunity.
One of the best things you can do to stay well is to adopt a healthy lifestyle, starting with a sensible diet. Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and cut back on unhealthy fats (found in fatty red meat and refined baked goods). If you find your appetite has decreased with age, get advice from a registered dietitian about supplementing your intake. However, don’t be swayed by herbal supplements that promise increased immunity—there is little evidence of their efficacy, and some can interact with medications you may be taking.
Get plenty of exercise, as it can help to reduce the systemic inflammation that underlies many chronic diseases. Exercise also can help alleviate stress (which has been shown to affect the body’s ability to respond to disease) as well as regulate blood pressure. Plus, exercise helps you avoid the weight gain associated with many age-related conditions.
Furthermore, avoid smoking, get adequate sleep, and don’t forget the simplest method of all for boosting immunity and preventing illness: Wash your hands often and thoroughly using good old soap and hot water.
Originally published in 2017, this post is regularly updated.
Rosanne Leipzig, MD, PhD, is Professor and Vice Chair of the Brookdale Department of Geriatrics and Adult Development at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in New York, N.Y. She also serves as Editor-in-Chief of the monthly publication Mount Sinai School of Medicine Focus on Healthy Aging. Visit her website at rosannemd.com.