Each winter, the news cycle on influenza picks up. From vaccinations to pneumonia, it's common to hear about the flu often during the colder months. While the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly held center stage the past couple of years, older adults should remain mindful about flu viruses and what they might mean for ongoing respiratory health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults age 65 and up account for the majority of flu-related hospitalizations and deaths annually.
Does that mean seniors are more likely to catch the flu? Not really — your risks of catching flu have more to do with your lifestyle and habits than your age. Some reasons older adults are more at risk from the flu include:
• The body's ability to defend itself against sickness often declines as a person ages. That can lead to getting sick more often or getting sicker when a virus is present.
• Flu can increase the risks of other serious issues, including heart attack and stroke. Those risks are highest in the first two weeks of an influenza infection, but they can continue for a few months.
• Influenza can lead to pneumonia, which is a serious respiratory condition that can be life threatening. This is especially true for young children, older adults and those with compromised immune systems.
There are various types of pneumonia, and the one most related to flu cases is viral pneumonia. This type of pneumonia is caused when a viral infection invades the lungs. Flu viruses can be a cause, as can the viruses that cause colds, bronchitis, chickenpox and respiratory syncytial.
The virus causes swelling in the lungs, which blocks oxygen flow. That makes it hard to breathe and impacts many other functions in your body. While many people recover from viral pneumonia each year — and some people don't ever realize they have it — severe cases can be quite dangerous.
Symptoms of viral pneumonia include fever, coughing up green or yellow mucus, fatigue, weakness, shaking, chills, muscle pain, shortness of breath and headaches. It's important to seek medical care if you have the flu or some of these symptoms.
Older adults know you can't always stop germs, and getting sick is often an unfortunate side effect of life on this earth. But there are steps you can take to help prevent the flu or mitigate symptoms if you do end up battling influenza this season. Check out the steps below and incorporate as many as possible into your lifestyle to help boost your immune system and attend to your health this winter.
• Consider getting a flu vaccine. The CDC notes that getting a flu vaccine is one of the best ways to protect yourself from the flu each season. However, it's important to talk to your doctor and determine what's best for you individually. Not everyone can get the flu vaccine, and some people may need to get a certain kind due to immunity issues or chronic conditions.
• Follow good hygiene. Handwashing is one of the best ways to combat a number of illnesses. Wash your hands well after using the restroom, before and after eating, whenever you're planning to handle food and when you come into your home from another setting.
• Avoid contact with sick people. If possible, limit your contact with individuals who are not feeling well. You can support friends and family via phone calls and web conferencing when they're sick or choose to meet outside or in a space that allows plenty of room between individuals when someone may have a cold or flu.
• Attend to your sleep schedule. When your body is well-rested, it has more energy to fight off infections. Try to get at least 7 hours of sleep a night and work on developing a healthy sleep schedule.
• Eat well. Eat plenty of whole foods and a variety of healthy foods to ensure you're getting the right vitamins and minerals to support your immune system and other functions in your body. If you're not sure about your nutritional needs, talk to your doctor or a dietitian to learn more and ask if you should be taking supplements.
• Get some sunshine. Vitamin D is an important mineral for immune functions, and sunlight is the best source of it. Open blinds and curtains to get sun in your assisted living apartment or home, and get outside to walk or sit whenever the weather is warm enough this winter.
Flu season can be worrisome to people of all ages, and seniors especially might be wary about the illness. One of the benefits of life in an assisted living community such as Bethesda Gardens in Arlington is that you're surrounded by caring staff and wellness resources. We ensure our residents enjoy good nutrition, social and physical activities and access to help managing chronic conditions and illnesses like the flu should they arise.