Ever feel like your body’s an overbearing boss? Without any input from you, it decides when your back feels limber or sore, when your head feels clear or achy, when your sleep is sound or disrupted. It’s an exasperating, inescapable part of the human condition, and getting older doesn’t help.
Making the decision to get vaccinated puts the power back in your hands, allowing you to choose health over illness. Vaccines work by helping your immune system make a “memory” of a germ without ever having to fight the real thing. That way, if the immune system encounters the actual germ—whether it’s a virus, bacterium or other microbe—it’s ready to attack, and you’re less likely to get sick.
Vaccines are important across the lifespan
Some vaccines are especially important for older adults. As we age, our immune systems tend to weaken, putting us at higher risk for certain diseases. Added to that, underlying health conditions that many of us experience as seniors, like heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory illnesses, can make it harder to fight off infection.
Vaccines stop germs in their tracks so that you can avoid infection altogether. If you do get sick, you’re less likely to experience severe complications when you’ve been vaccinated.
What vaccines do you need?
- Pneumococcal vaccines protect against a group of bacterial diseases that spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes, laughs, or talks. Pneumococcal diseases can affect the lungs and bloodstream and lead to serious illness, including pneumonia and meningitis.Pneumococcal vaccines are recommended for all adults ages 65 and older, and for adults younger than 65 who have certain health conditions and/or who smoke cigarettes. Two types of pneumococcal vaccines are available in the U.S. Talk to your doctor about which types are recommended for you.
- Shingles vaccines protect against a virus caused by the varicella zoster virus—the same virus that causes chickenpox. After recovering from chickenpox, the virus stays dormant (inactive) in your body, but can be activated many years later, causing a painful rash. Although the rash usually clears up in two to four weeks, the pain can last for months or even years after the rash goes away. This long-lasting pain is called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) and is the most common complication of shingles. The risk of getting shingles and PHN increases as you age.
Vaccination is recommended for all adults starting at age 50, even if you’ve had shingles before. Two shingles vaccines are licensed in the U.S., and your doctor will help decide which is best for you.
- Flu vaccines need no introduction. You may have even had your own brush with this agonizing illness that leaves you feeling like you’ve been hit by a big rig. During most flu seasons, people 65 and older bear the greatest burden of severe disease. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that during the 2017–18 season, older adults accounted for 90 percent of the estimated 79,400 flu deaths.
Although flu vaccines don’t prevent all cases of the flu, getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself. Even if you do get sick after vaccination, you’re far less likely to experience severe complications that can lead to hospitalization or death. And despite popular belief, it’s impossible for flu vaccine to cause the flu.
People 65 and older can get any flu vaccine approved for this age group. The flu virus changes every year, so it’s important to make sure you get vaccinated each flu season as soon as vaccine becomes available.
- Tdap vaccines prevent three diseases: tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (aka whooping cough). All adults need one lifetime dose of Tdap, so now is a great time to get yours if you haven’t already. In addition to protecting yourself, you’ll be shielding those most vulnerable to whooping cough: young infants, like your grandchild or the neighbor’s new baby.
If you’ve already gotten your one dose of Tdap, then you just need a tetanus booster, called Td, every 10 years. Tetanus is different from other diseases we vaccinate against because it doesn’t spread from person-to-person. Instead, the toxin that causes tetanus is found naturally in the environment in soil, dust, and manure that can enter the skin through cuts or wounds.
- Measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine has been getting a bunch of extra attention lately, and for good reason. The U.S. is currently experiencing the largest measles outbreak in the past 25 years. The good news? You probably don’t need to do anything to protect yourself from measles. If you were born before 1957, you’re considered immune to measles. You’re also considered immune if you have lab test results showing you’ve had a previous measles infection. If you were born in 1957 or later, you probably got vaccinated as a child. Check your records to make certain you received at least one dose of MMR.
Take note: vaccinations administered between 1963 and 1967 are considered invalid. If you got vaccinated in this timeframe, you’ll need to repeat the dose, if you haven’t already. If you’re a healthcare workers, student, or international traveler, be sure you have two MMR doses.
Want to learn more about vaccines? Watch this short video from the Alliance for Aging Research, Our Best Shot: The Importance of Vaccines for Older Adults or visit cdc.gov/vaccines.
Contributor Debra Berliner, MPH is an immunization educator and consultant with the Public Health—Seattle & King County Immunization Program.