Seniors are advised to keep up on vaccines in order to keep their immune system from weakening, making it difficult to fight off infections.

Featured photo via iStock.

By Ruthan Brodsky

If you are 55 or older and not up to date with your vaccinations, you are not alone. About 30 percent of you skipped a flu shot in 2017, two-thirds didn’t receive the recommended shingles vaccine and 43 percent were not current for tetanus shots, according to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

As you age, your immune system weakens, making it more difficult to fight off infections. You are more likely to be fighting off complications from the flu, pneumonia or shingles, which may lead to lengthy and chronic illnesses. With a serious health condition such as heart disease or diabetes, getting vaccinated is particularly important.

“The research shows that many seniors aren’t getting the protection they need,” says Dr. James Bragman, D.O., in West Bloomfield who specializes in internal, geriatric and sports medicine. “As a primary care physician, I look at the whole person, mind and body, and work at keeping my patients healthy as they age.”

“This includes encouraging patients to consume a plant-based diet, to enlarge their network of friends beyond their family, and to make certain they’re getting the vaccines they need depending upon their age and lifestyle, including travel plans, medical conditions and which vaccinations they had in the past,” he says.

“Vaccines are the safest ways to protect your health,” says Dr. Carl Lauter, M.D., an infectious disease specialist in Royal Oak who also specializes in allergy and immunology. “Your best reasons for keeping current with your vaccines are to protect yourself and the people around you.”

Influenza (Flu Vaccine)

“Some people won’t get a flu shot because they’re afraid they’ll get the flu from the vaccine,” Lauter says. “No matter how many stories you hear, this is not scientifically possible. The injected flu vaccine is made from a dead virus and the nasal flu vaccine is made from a weakened virus.

“Because the flu virus changes each year, a yearly flu shot is required especially for those with chronic conditions and weakened immune systems, and for the elderly,” he says. “Pneumonia, a serious viral or bacterial lung infection, is the most common complication of the flu.

“Scientists try to predict which flu strains will show up the next winter and develop vaccines to match those strains. Sometimes the predictions are excellent and other times vaccinations are less effective.”

Pneumococcal Vaccine

Severe infections in the bloodstream and key organs are caused by pneumococcal disease often resulting in pneumonia, blood infections and meningitis, killing about 18,000 adults 65 and older each year. The CDC recommends that all adults 65 and older take the two vaccines about a year apart to protect against pneumococcal disease. In July 2017, the CDC reported that only about 18 percent of older adults are getting both vaccines, the PCV13 (Prevnar 13) and PPSV23 (Pneumovax 23).

Shingles or Herpes Zoster Vaccine

Shingles is a blistering and painful rash, which one out of every three people, generally 55 and older, will develop in their lifetime. It is caused by the same virus responsible for childhood chickenpox, which then lies dormant in most adults and reactivates in later life.

“Some people experience mild to severe nerve pain that can linger for months or even years, and the complications increase in severity as you age,” Lauter says. “The good news is that a new shingles vaccine, Shingrix, is available and works better than the previous vaccine, Zostavax. Two doses are needed 2-6 months apart. Healthy adults 50 or older should receive Shingrix even if they had shingles and already received Zostavax.

“The problem is you may have to put your name on a wait list for the vaccine because there’s often a shortage.”

Tdap Booster (tetanus, diphtheriae, pertussis)

“All of us should have had the childhood vaccine to protect against tetanus but there may be some who missed taking the combination booster called Tdap that protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough),” Lauter says.

“It is recommended that everyone receive the Td (tetanus-diphtherial) booster vaccine every 10 years and adults should get the Tdap vaccine at least once. The Tdap should also be given to women during pregnancy.”

Hepatitis A Vaccine

The hepatitis A virus (HAV) can be a deadly liver disease spread person to person when people don’t wash their hands properly or leave unsanitary conditions around food and water. For long-term protection, you need two doses, six months apart.

Hepatitis B Vaccine

The Hepatitis B virus is also a contagious virus and attacks the liver. The vaccine is usually given as two or three shots over 1-6 months.

“Also available is a combination vaccine approved for adults that protects people from both Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B,” Lauter says. “The combined Hepatitis A and B vaccine is usually given as three separate doses over a six-month period.”

Adults may need other vaccines based on health conditions, their job, lifestyle and travel habits. Keep in mind that no matter what your age, vaccines may not provide complete protection. Some, such as the tetanus shot, are reported to be 100 percent effective, but the flu shot limits your risk of getting influenza by about half. The effectiveness of most vaccines also decreases over time, which is why boosters are recommended for certain shots.