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Why Seniors Are At Higher Risk for Infectious Disease

As we age, it seems more and more difficult to stay well, especially during cold and flu season. From common colds and stomach viruses to urinary tract infections and shingles, older adults are more prone to infection.

Monyett Freeman, clinical manager for Visiting Nurse Association of Ohio's medical/surgical department, described seven reasons why seniors are susceptible:

  1. Declining immune system. Bodies go through metabolic changes when they get older. As the metabolism slows, the body doesn't produce as many white blood cells -- the cells most important to fighting infection -- as it did when it was younger.
  2. Co-morbidity. Seniors tend to have more than one health condition or chronic disease. Their bodies are already stressed from fighting those problems, and they are less capable of fending off new ones.
  3. General frailness. Elderly people may have limited mobility, which leads to decreased circulation and inadequate respiration. "If you aren't moving around a lot, you aren't breathing deeply and getting rid of secretions in your lungs," Freeman said. "That leads to pneumonia."
  4. Institution-acquired illness: This is the vicious cycle of aging. When seniors go to the hospital to receive treatment for the illnesses they are more at risk to acquire, they get exposed to viruses that cause other illnesses. "A lot of people think that hospitals are very clean, and they are as clean as they can be," Freeman said. "But a lot of other sick people are there, and they come into contact with things they won't get at home."
  5. Poor nutrition and hydration. Because appetites tend to wane with age, seniors often eat and drink less. They may not get enough of the protein, vitamins and minerals needed to give their body the fuel it needs to fight infection.
  6. Failure to keep up with regular doctor's visits and vaccinations. "Sometimes, seniors aren't proactive in their care as much as they should be in order to get ahead of any problems they may have," Freeman said. "That also can lead to non-compliance with vaccinations for pneumonia and flu."
  7. Inactivity. Exercise and activity are essential to maintaining wellness. Ironically, one of the reasons many seniors avoid activity -- especially outside of their homes -- is a fear of exposure to viruses that might make them ill. But, Freeman said, this is a mistake.

Freeman said seniors should protect themselves against disease and infection by practicing meticulous hand washing or hand sanitizing and working with their physicians on ways to manage their existing conditions to remain as well as possible. That way, if they are exposed to an infectious disease, they can be as strong as possible to fight it.

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