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Coronavirus in Older Adults: Why the Risk is Higher & How to Help

woman delivering food to grandmother since coronavirus in older adults poses a greater risk
A weaker immune system and underlying health conditions can worsen coronavirus in older adults.

Coronavirus in older adults causes serious illness. Senior citizens infected with the COVID-19 virus are also more likely to die from it. This puts your elderly relatives and neighbors at a greater risk of a serious infection. What can you do?

Why Coronavirus in Older Adults is Worse

A Less-Effective Immune System

Your body’s immune system attacks viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi as soon as they enter your body. The second your immune system detects invading cells, called antigens, white blood cell production increases. These white blood cells kill the antigens. If you have a healthy immune system that functions normally, you can avoid an illness. If you do get sick, you’ll only have a mild version of the infection.

As you age, your immune system becomes less effective at fighting viruses. This puts you at a greater risk of infection. Your body may struggle to identify which cells will make you sick. You may not have as many white blood cells to attack antigens. You just don’t have the same ability to fight infection as you once did.

Seniors Have More Underlying Health Conditions

Chronic health conditions and diseases can reduce your ability to fight viruses. About 92% of older adults have one chronic condition. And 77% have at least two chronic conditions, according to estimates from the National Council on Aging. Already fighting chronic issues, your body just doesn’t have all the resources it needs to take on more.

Health conditions that can hurt your recovery from the coronavirus include:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Lung conditions, like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Cancer
  • Immune system disorders

Do You or a Loved One Have Symptoms?

Call your doctor or local UVA clinic. If you’re unsure where to call, contact UVA Health at 434.98.COVID (982-6843).

Some chronic illnesses, like diabetes, may make the immune system function less efficiently. The coronavirus may worsen respiratory conditions. This adds strain to your heart. It also increases your risk of pneumonia.

Medications Weaken

Medications that suppress the immune system can also limit your body’s ability to defend against a virus. These include chemotherapy or anti-rejection drugs for transplant recipients.

Smoking Hurts

Older adults who smoke will face an even harder battle. The habit can damage the lungs and slow your recovery from a viral illness.

China reported death rates for chronic conditions, including:

  • Heart disease –  10.5%
  • Diabetes – 7.3%
  • Respiratory disease – 6.3%
  • High blood pressure – 6%
  • Cancer – 5.6%

These figures appeared in a report prepared by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

UVA Health’s Response

See how UVA is addressing coronavirus.

Help Protect Older Relatives From Coronavirus

Staying away from public places is one of the best ways for older people to avoid the coronavirus.

In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people over age 60 stay at home. You can help your elderly relatives or neighbors by shopping for them. Take care of other errands, so they don’t go out. Remind them to wash their hands often.

Check in with older adults frequently. If you feel ill or come in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19, avoid face-to-face visits for at least 14 days.

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