Are Elderly Seniors Under-Vaccinated But Over-Treated?

For many students, it’s already back to school or nearly that time of the year, and parents are busy making sure their children have everything they need for a successful semester, including checking to see if their vaccinations are up-to-date.  Older adults too should seize the changing of the seasons to find out what immunizations they may benefit from having later in life.  It’s also important for seniors to understand that older bodies may react differently to vaccinations than their younger counterparts.

According to a recent New York Times opinion piece, because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccination guidelines lump all adults over the age of 65 together, many elderly adults may be under-vaccinated.   Our population is rapidly aging and people are living into very old age; but the body of a 65 year old is vastly different than that of an 85 year old.  Elderly adults may have weaker immune systems that make them more susceptible to infection.  And how long vaccines offer patients protection is also different for the elderly who produce less effective antibodies than younger patients.   Just as children may need booster vaccinations later on, seniors may require a second dose of some vaccines in very old age. 

The CDC recommends that healthy adults over the age of 50 receive the shingles vaccine.  Nearly 1 in 3 Americans will develop this rash in their lifetime and the risk increases with age; not only is shingles painful, it can have serious complications.   Adults are also advised to get an annual seasonal flu shot and Td or Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis) once every 10 years.  Those over 65 should also receive the pneumococcal vaccine to protect against infections in the lungs and bloodstream. 

Looking at the other side of the coin, health care systems routinely over-treat very elderly and frail adults when the harms of invasive procedures or treatments outweigh any possible benefits.  Treating the younger old the same as the very old can be a misuse of precious resources that could be better spent providing the best quality of life, even if it’s for a shorter period of time.   Read more about what medical services may unnecessary or cause more harm and distress than benefit in the Health Affairs blog;  Tackling Low-Value Care.

Learn more about vaccines for older adults at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website here