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Vaccinations Help Extend the Golden Years

By Stacey Snyder
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center correspondent

As Baby Boomers continue to collect their final paychecks and begin the journey of life after retirement, the desire to remain healthy long after entering the world of senior citizenship is playing an increasingly prominent role in American culture. This generation is not satisfied with sailing quietly into the sunset; they want to make each moment count and live out their "golden years" with gusto.

A large part of an extended lifespan depends on a healthy and active lifestyle; no small part of which are vaccines. In fact, between 50,000 to 70,000 adults die annually of two common vaccine-preventable diseases alone: pneumococcal disease (pneumonia) and influenza (the flu).

Dr. Robert J. Schreiber, Physician-in-Chief of Hebrew SeniorLife, affiliated with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, stresses the importance of seniors staying current with vaccinations.

"Elders in general tend to accumulate chronic illnesses," says Dr. Schreiber. "When an individual has to fight an infection like pneumonia on top of a pre-existing chronic illness such as heart disease, it can lead to complications including hospitalizations or even death."

Many seniors are afraid to get vaccinated citing complications, adverse reactions, and side-effects often widely publicized in the press. However, immunizations are very safe and complications associated with them are extremely rare.

"It's so important to get vaccinated because when you are older, if you get the flu or pneumonia, it can be very serious," notes Esther Wynn, an active senior. "There are a few people who prefer not to get the shot because they think it will make them sick, but it's just not the case. It's just hearsay that has made them fearful."

Two other immunizations especially important for seniors are tetanus diphtheria and the Zoster vaccine (commonly known as Zostavax), which prevents shingles. Dr. Schreiber indicates that many seniors don't think they are at risk for developing tetanus because they were vaccinated many years ago.

However, "an individual who hasn't gotten a booster shot in 30 to 40 years is at risk for getting tetanus. Each year 50 to 60 deaths are attributed to tetanus with one-half of those deaths occurring in older adults," he says.

In addition to the tetanus booster, it is recommended seniors get a booster for acellular pertussis and diphtheria since there has been a resurgence of these diseases in young people and older adults at risk of acquiring them. These three vaccines are combined and can be given at one time.

Zostavax is a relatively new vaccine used to prevent the herpes zoster virus (shingles) in older adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults 60 years of age and older get a single dose of the shingles vaccine (called Zostavax), even if they have had a prior episode of shingles.

According to Dr. Schreiber, "approximately 15 percent of the senior population will develop shingles and 20 to 40 percent will develop complications from this serious illness."

Symptoms of shingles include burning or shooting pain and tingling or itching, generally located on one side of the body or face. The pain can be severe and a rash or blisters can be present anywhere from one to 14 days.

However, not everyone is sold on the new vaccine. Esther Wynn heard about the shingles vaccine and isn't sure what to do. She is currently "talking to her friends about it," but isn't sure she will get vaccinated.

Perhaps the best advice given by both Dr. Schreiber and Esther is to talk to your physician about the importance of vaccines and to develop an immunization schedule to give you the best chance of remaining healthy for years to come.

Above content provided by Hebrew SeniorLife in partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted July 2012

Contact Information

Division of Gerontology
Department of Medicine
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Lowry Medical Office Building #1B (West Campus)
110 Francis Street
Boston, MA 02215

Contact Information

Hebrew Senior Life
1200 Centre Street
Boston, MA 02131