One of the most common quips made by many seniors is the classic line, “If I knew I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself.” The quote has been attributed to composer Eubie Blake, baseball player Mickey Mantle, Hollywood producer Adolph Zukor and many others.
It’s a popular saying because it is true.
However, it’s never too late to think about your health and what you can do now to keep yourself enjoying life.
Anirudh Rai, M.D., of Henry Mayo Newhall Primary Care, said as people age there are numerous issues to confront, including viruses at this time of year.
“As we age a lot of issues surface with our health,” he said. “Osteoarthritis, bone health, heart health and other issues. Also, the immune system does get weaker as we get older.”
Rai said he recommends seniors take advantage of vaccinations to help the immune system fight off viruses.
Rai said the annual flu shot is the first line of defense to stay healthy this fall and winter.
“As we age the T cells and B cells that are an essential part of the immune system tend to get lax,” he said. “That’s why we recommend getting an annual flu shot, especially the high dose shot.”
Known as the “senior flu shot” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started recommending the high dose flu shot to seniors in the summer of 2022. These shots can offer greater protection to people over 65, who, due to immune system changes that happen with age, do not have as strong a response to vaccination as younger, healthier people.
The CDC reports that the 2023–2024 flu season influenza vaccines are quadrivalent, containing hemagglutinin (HA) derived from one influenza A(H1N1)pdm09 virus, one influenza A(H3N2) virus, one influenza B/Victoria lineage virus and one influenza B/Yamagata lineage virus.
The Yale School of Medicine reported recently that 90 percent of deaths worldwide related to influenza strike men and women aged 65 and older.
The newest vaccine booster to combat COVID-19 was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Sept. 15 for everyone age six months and older. For seniors who may have received a booster earlier in the year, this is a new booster that offers better protection against the omicron subvariant XBB.1.5.
While new variants have been shown to be better at infecting people and evading existing immunity, the CDC reports that vaccines greatly reduce the risk of hospitalization and death in people who are up to date on COVID vaccination.
According to the CDC the national death rate for COVID-19 declined in 2022 and 2023 to date because of improvement treatment in medical care, as well as widespread vaccinations.
Rai said seniors can get both the flu vaccine and the new COVID-19 booster in the same visit.
“While it is safe to get both shots at the same time if you have had reactions in the past to multiple vaccinations, I would recommend spacing them out,” he said.
Rai said seniors should also be sure to get the new two-shot shingles vaccine, Shingrix.
“As our immunity wanes it is easier for shingles to come out,” said Rai. “As we age one in three people will eventually get shingles and of that number one in 200 will get a shingles infection where the pain will remain for the rest of your life.”
CDC recommends that adults 50 years and older get two doses of the shingles vaccine called Shingrix (recombinant zoster vaccine) to prevent shingles and the complications from the disease.
Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. Shingles can occur anywhere on your body.
The National Institute of Health has reported a slight increased risk of Guillain-Barré Syndrome after vaccination with Shingrix. The study found an estimated three cases of Guillain-Barré Syndrome per million vaccinations administered in adults aged 65 and older.
“There are some side effects reported with the vaccine,” said Rai. “Pain at site of injection, headache and less than two percent experience nausea. But when you compare the risks to the benefits, the benefits definitely outweigh the risks.”
New RSV Vaccine
It’s easy to overlook the need for the new RSV vaccine approved by the in May 2023 for individuals 60 years of age or older.
Most people, until recently, had never heard of RSV, or they considered it a virus that primarily afflicted infants and young children.
“RSV used to be very prevalent, especially in the pediatric population, and especially during the winter,” said Rai. “Typically, we did not see hospitalizations with older folks.
However, according to Rai the RSV virus has “mutated,” or become adapted, to infecting more older people, posing more of a threat to seniors.
“The RSV vaccine has been shown to be very effective of preventing hospitalizations,” he said.
Rai described the RSV virus as becoming more “violent” in recent years with increased hospitalization numbers for seniors.
“I would recommend getting the RSV vaccine when you can,” he said. “It has been shown to be very effective.”
General Health Tips
Rai encourages seniors to check in with their primary care physicians every three to six months to make sure vaccines, labs, prescriptions and other metrics are up to date.
“It’s important for your primary care doctor to see if there are any changes,” he said.
Rai also advised seniors to share their medical status with family members.
Controlling weight, blood pressure, diabetes and increasing movement and exercise are also advised to for overall health and longevity.
“Stay active and ask your doctors honestly about issues you are concerned about,” he said.