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Adults over 50 can protect their health with vaccinations and regular physical exams.
Vaccines are available for a wide range of conditions, including COVID-19, flu, pneumonia and shingles.
Providence Nurse Practitioner Mary Ann Dunlap discusses the importance of vaccines and how they protect you, your loved ones and your community.
Whether it’s a baby’s first measles, mumps and rubella vaccine or a polio booster shot at a back-to-school physical, vaccines and yearly exams are often associated with children’s healthcare needs. But kids are not the only ones who benefit from the protection offered by immunizations and regular doctor visits. Adults over 50 should also take steps to protect themselves against preventable illness.
“Vaccines are important as we age because we are still susceptible to many diseases that are preventable. Our immune systems have decreased efficiency as we age, particularly in our older years,” says Mary Ann Dunlap, ANP, Nurse Practitioner at Sisters of Providence Health System.
“As we grow older, we are also more likely to have chronic health conditions that can increase the likelihood of serious illness. Therefore, we are more susceptible to some conditions and more prone to become seriously ill with those conditions. COVID-19 was a real example of this situation. Pneumonia and shingles are two other examples,” Dunlap says.
Even if you're feeling fit, annual physicals are an essential part of maintaining good health through your senior years. "Well visits are a great time to review all your chronic conditions and make sure you are doing all you can to maximize your health and control those conditions," says Dunlap.
Even if you have no chronic conditions, your annual physical is a good time to review preventive care such as immunizations, routine labs and colon cancer and breast cancer screenings. “Safety and general health issues should also be discussed, such as screening for depression, fall risks in older adults and exercise and diet recommendations,” Dunlap says.
It’s important to note that vaccine recommendations are recommended for adults based on age, job and other factors and are updated yearly. Your doctor will stay up to date and recommend an immunization schedule. You can also review the most recent CDC adult immunization schedule by age group and bring your questions to your annual well visit.
Take this CDC Adult Vaccine Quiz to get a list of vaccines you may need.
Over 50? Get these vaccines
Vaccination defends against a wide range of illnesses — many of which have serious health consequences as you grow older.
With few exceptions, all adults should get a seasonal flu vaccine annually regardless of age. Flu season starts in October and ends in March. For the most protection, get the shot in early October to give your body time to develop the antibodies you need to stay flu-free.
Healthy adults ages 65 and older and adults ages 19 to 64 who have certain risk factors such as chronic lung or heart disease, smoking, lymphoma, alcoholism or leukemia—should get the pneumonia vaccine.
Tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis (Tdap) vaccine
The Tdap vaccine protects against tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough. Whooping cough is on the rise and tetanus boosters are needed every ten years. If you can’t remember getting this vaccine, or if it’s been a while since you had it, talk to your doctor about adding a Tdap to this year’s health care agenda.
All Americans over the age of 12 are encouraged to get vaccinated against COVID-19. There are currently three vaccines approved for use in the US
COVID-19 is especially dangerous for older adults, who often have underlying conditions that worsen their prognosis. Vaccination is a vital tool for protecting both your own health and the health of those in your community.
“COVID vaccines are so important. We need to protect ourselves, but also others who are vulnerable. Science informs us on this. We have seen a decrease in COVID-19 cases since vaccines have become more prevalent. Vaccines also help stop the virus from mutating and creating new variants,” says Dunlap. “Please get vaccinated for yourself, your loved ones and your fellow humans.”
Hepatitis A vaccine
If you’re at increased risk for Hepatitis A and have not been vaccinated, talk to your doctor about whether immunization is right for you.
Those at increased risk include:
- International travelers
- Men who have sex with men
- People who use illegal drugs
- People with occupational risk for exposure
- People who anticipate close personal contact with an international adoptee
- People experiencing homelessness
- People with chronic liver disease, including hepatitis B and hepatitis C
- People with HIV
Hepatitis B vaccine
If you’re over 50 and at risk for developing hepatitis B, you should consider getting vaccinated. Adults getting the hepatitis B vaccine require three doses spaced across six months.
Risk factors include:
- A job that exposes you to human blood
- Contact with open sores or human blood
- Sharing needles with an infected person
- Unprotected sexual contact
If you're over 50 and had chickenpox at any point, you're at increased risk for developing shingles. And if you’re over 50, chances are good you’ve had chickenpox, even if you don’t remember that it happened, according to the CDC.
Shingles is a painful rash that causes blisters, pain, itching and tingling in the area in which it develops. It’s caused by the same virus that leads to chickenpox.
"Shingles is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus, which is kept in check by our immune system. However, the virus doesn't leave your body entirely. It just stays quietly dormant as long as your immune system is working well," says Dunlap.
The risk of developing shingles goes up as you grow older and is most common in people older than 50. It can also be activated by stress or situations that cause your immune system to become weakened.
Symptoms for shingles usually start with pain, tingling or itching. Next, a rash of blisters appears, typically as a single stripe that runs across the left or right side of your body. In some cases, inflammation will develop on your face. After 7 to 10 days, the blisters form scabs. They tend to clear up within 2 to 4 weeks of making their first appearance.
Other symptoms of shingles may include:
- Nausea and upset stomach
Am I at risk of developing shingles?
Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles, but a weakened immune system makes it even more likely. This is especially true if you:
- Have an immune system disease such as HIV or AIDS
- Have certain cancers such as lung, breast or prostate cancer
- Require immunosuppressive drugs because of an organ transplant
Complications of shingles
In many cases, shingles clear up with treatment, leaving no visible scars. However, in some instances, it can lead to severe complications affecting your eyes, including blindness. Very rarely, shingles may also lead to:
- Brain inflammation
- Hearing problems
The most common complication of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). Up to 18% of people with shingles will develop PHN, and the risk increases as you grow older. The condition causes long-term nerve pain that lingers for months, or even years, after your rash is gone. For some people, the pain from PHN is so severe it interferes with their daily life and keeps them from activities they enjoy.
Are you on the fence about vaccines?
Although vaccines are proven to be a safe and effective way to fight disease, you may still be hesitant to roll up your sleeve. Dunlap offers suggestions to help ease your mind.
“If having a vaccine creates anxiety, talk to your healthcare provider about what they can do to help you feel safe. Bring a trusted friend to your vaccine appointment to help ease anxiety. Read up on the science behind the vaccine on reputable sites,” she says.
"Millions have been vaccinated, and we are seeing all the positive benefits from it," says Dunlap. "Not just COVID, but look back at history — polio, smallpox, measles, tetanus. All of these have been killers in the past, but no more. We are so lucky to have access to safe and effective vaccines."
Find a doctor
The senior care specialists at Providence can help you keep your vaccination schedule up-to-date. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can access a full range of health care services. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.
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