Older Adults at Higher Risk From Respiratory Infections

The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) hosted two roundtables this summer during which experts arrived at the same conclusion — older adults are at higher risk from respiratory infections and prevention is still the best defense. The independent panels examined the impact of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in adults age 65 years and older. The results of the roundtable discussions have been summarized in recently published NFID reports, Call to Action: Reinvigorating Influenza Prevention in U.S. Adults Age 65 Years and Older and Respiratory Syncytial Virus in Older Adults: A Hidden Annual Epidemic.
 
Experts say viruses like influenza and RSV hit older adults harder because of age-related decline in the immune system (immunosenescence) and an increased likelihood of having chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease. But not everyone's immune system declines at the same rate, says NFID medical director William Schaffner, MD. "An active 80 year old may have less immune system decline than a frail 65 year old," said Schaffner. "But staying active only helps so much—if you're over 65 it is vital that you boost your immune system by getting vaccinated as recommended."

There are currently several types of flu vaccines available in the U.S. including two that are specifically recommended for the 65+ population—one (high-dose) that provides a four-times higher dose than the standard vaccine and another that includes an adjuvant, an ingredient that helps create a stronger immune response in the body. Public health officials do not recommend one specific vaccine over another. "Adults age 65 years and older may receive the high-dose or adjuvanted vaccine if they are available, but should not skip their annual flu vaccination in any case," says Schaffner.

RSV is a well-known cause of severe respiratory illness in infants but is also linked to an increased risk of hospitalization and death in older adults. RSV circulates widely during the winter months at the same time as influenza and other respiratory viruses, and until recently, its impact on older adults has gone largely unrecognized. "It is nearly impossible to distinguish between influenza and RSV infections based on symptoms alone," says Edward Walsh, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, who has conducted multiple studies on the burden of RSV in older adults. 

The misperception that RSV is of little to no consequence in older adults has slowed drug and vaccine development for this age group. Several vaccines and treatment options are currently in development with a hope that they will be available in the near future. NFID has developed tools and resources to help raise awareness about the burden of disease and the importance of disease prevention among the older adult population. Resources include webinars, reports, and infographics targeted to both healthcare professionals and consumers. Visit www.nfid.org/rsv and www.nfid.org/influenza to learn more. 

Source: National Foundation for Infectious Diseases

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