The topic of vaccination often evokes childhood memories of anxious trips to the doctor for shots. Many adults assume that their inoculation days are long over, but keeping up with recommended vaccine schedules throughout our lives is just as important as the initial doses we received as children.
Why Do Adults and Seniors Need to Get Vaccinated?
As we age, our immune systems begin to function less efficiently and the immunity we received from childhood vaccines fades. Healing and immune responses slow, thereby increasing seniors’ susceptibility to disease. These changes also mean that “commonplace” bacterial and viral infections (like pneumonia or the flu) are harder for elders to fight off and can be deadly. This is especially true for adults who have chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes or COPD.
Proper nutrition, regular exercise, adequate sleep and a positive mental state can all help keep an individual’s immune system strong, but a healthy lifestyle is not the only way to avoid getting sick. Simple preventive measures like vaccines can have a huge impact on a senior’s quality of life and longevity, as well as that of their caregiver. Prevention also costs significantly less than treating illnesses, which can include doctor’s visits, medications, diagnostic testing and even hospitalization and senior rehab stays.
Recommended Vaccines for the Elderly
Important vaccinations for seniors include Covid-19, shingles (herpes zoster), annual flu (influenza), and pneumonia (pneumococcal) shots. Each of these has specific guidelines and recommendations for who should receive them and when, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that older individuals receive these vaccines in particular, since seniors are at increased risk of contracting these diseases.
Now that effective COVID-19 vaccines are available, it is recommended that everyone get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible. The CDC has issued COVID-19 vaccination recommendations that prioritize healthcare workers, long-term care facility residents, frontline essential workers, seniors and individuals with underlying medical conditions, but keep in mind that each state has its own vaccine rollout strategy. For more information on whether you or someone you love may be eligible for COVID-19 vaccination and how these shots are being administered, use the CDC’s Health Department Directory tool to look up and visit your local health department’s website.
Medical, Financial and Social Benefits of Vaccination
Each person who follows through with all recommended vaccines not only benefits personally but also contributes to the herd immunity of those around them. Although vaccines are not 100 percent effective for everyone, widespread compliance reduces the risk of exposure and infection for those who are unable to be vaccinated.
Inoculations can protect against a specific disease as well as related medical complications. For example, a senior who contracts the flu can easily develop full-blown pneumonia. Before the coronavirus pandemic, CDC data from 2019 ranked influenza and pneumonia as the eighth leading cause of death for Americans 65 and older. A 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that use of the flu vaccine was associated with a lower risk of major adverse cardiovascular events in the year following vaccination. This is a significant connection because the American Heart Association estimates that 121.5 million adults in the U.S. have some form of cardiovascular disease (CVD), and about two-thirds of CVD deaths occur in people ages 75 and older.
Family Members and Health Care Workers Need Vaccines, Too
Seniors aren’t the only ones who need to be vaccinated either. Family caregivers should certainly stay up to date on their vaccines, including an annual flu shot or nasal spray. The same applies for other members of your household. This will help keep everyone healthier and significantly reduce the likelihood that an aging loved one will be exposed to and contract a potentially life-threatening illness. Not to mention, most family caregivers can’t afford to fall ill since they are directly responsible for others’ day-to-day care.
It is important for health care workers and professional caregivers to stay up to date with their immunizations as well. The CDC strongly recommends that long-term care workers receive annual flu vaccines to prevent the transmission of preventable diseases between staff and patients. This is especially important in institutional environments, such as hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and adult day care centers, but also applies to in-home care staff like companions and home health aides.
Vaccine Types and Insurance Coverage
Compared to younger members of society, there are some differences in the recommended vaccination schedule, dosing and insurance coverage for older individuals. Since seniors’ immune function tends to be reduced, doctors might recommend follow-up doses and/or high-dose varieties of certain vaccines. Be sure to consult with a doctor about the best options for dosing and administration for yourself and your loved ones.
When it comes to paying for vaccines, most health insurance plans cover the costs of these preventive measures. Medicare Part B beneficiaries can receive partial or full coverage for influenza, pneumococcal and hepatitis B vaccinations. Part B also covers additional vaccines that are required following a senior’s exposure to a disease (like tetanus). Medicare prescription drug plans (Part D) and Medicare Advantage Plans (Part C), which have built-in drug coverage, cover all other commercially available vaccines (like the shingles shot).
Medicare beneficiaries who have Part B or are enrolled in a Medicare Advantage Plan pay nothing for the COVID-19 vaccine. Beneficiaries who only have Medicare Part A will still get the COVID-19 shot free of charge, but the provider or pharmacy administering it may charge a fee for the shot.
Be sure to check the specifics of your health insurance policy to ensure you receive necessary vaccinations at the lowest possible cost.
Vaccinations Offer Widespread Protection From Illness
Immunization is a powerful tool that helps protect the most vulnerable members of society. Limiting the impact of vaccine-preventable diseases on older generations can prevent illness, reduce out-of-pocket healthcare costs, and even delay placement in long-term care facilities like nursing homes. This simple collaborative effort can have widespread health benefits for you, your loved ones and society as a whole.
Sources: Aging changes in immunity (https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/004008.htm); FastStats - Leading Causes of Death (https://www.cdc.gov/injury/images/lc-charts/leading_causes_of_death_by_age_group_2018_1100w850h.jpg); Association between influenza vaccination and cardiovascular outcomes in high-risk patients: a meta-analysis (https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2013.279206); Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2020 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association (https://doi.org/10.1161/CIR.0000000000000757); Statistical Fact Sheet 2016 Update: Older Americans & Cardiovascular Diseases (https://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@sop/@smd/documents/downloadable/ucm_483970.pdf); Recommended Vaccines for Healthcare Workers (https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/adults/rec-vac/hcw.html); Flu shots (https://www.medicare.gov/coverage/flu-shots); Pneumococcal shots (https://www.medicare.gov/coverage/pneumococcal-shots); Hepatitis B shots (https://www.medicare.gov/coverage/hepatitis-b-shots); Shingles shots (https://www.medicare.gov/coverage/shingles-shots); Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccine (https://www.medicare.gov/coverage/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19-vaccine)