Pneumonia and Elders: Why They are More Susceptible
Marlo Sollitto, Editor
Pneumonia is a major cause of mortality among seniors aged 65 and older. In fact, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more people die each year from pneumonia than from automobile accidents. Despite this fact, many elderly people and their caregivers don’t know all the facts about pneumonia, and as a result could be at serious risk.
AgingCare.com spoke with Dr. William Schaffner, president-elect of the National Foundation on Infectious Disease and chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine about pneumonia’s impact on the elderly.
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs. The disease can range from mild to severe, and in some cases may be fatal. Although pneumonia is contagious, the main way older people get it is from themselves. “All of us carry bacteria in throats and noses. Frail elders often can’t clear secretions from their lungs, and those secretions tend to go down into bronchial tubes. The area fills with pus, mucous, and other liquids and cannot function properly. This means oxygen cannot reach the blood and the cells of the body. Complications of pneumonia may include bacterial infection in the bloodstream and fluid and infection around the lungs,” Dr. Schaffner explained.
Why are elderly people at greater risk?
Dr. Schaffner says there are several main reasons as to why elders are more susceptible:
- Older people are simply more frail than other individuals. A frail elder can’t clear secretions from their lungs. Those secretions tend to go down into bronchial tubes causing the infection.
- Elders tend to have weaker immune systems, and therefore cannot fight off the infection.
- Seniors may have other ailments – such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, chemotherapy or HIV – which put them at a higher risk for pneumonia.
- Seniors who have surgery are susceptible. Elders who are experiencing pain, or being given pain medication, tend to take shallow breaths, which results in mucus gathering in the lungs.