After my father had his stroke, I lived in rolling fear, peaking every cold and rainy spell, that he would catch pneumonia. It became almost an obsession of mine, heightened in my imagination by the cruelty of it: this strong man who took on everything in the world, being felled because his weakened immune system couldn’t fight off some bacteria.
Of course, this wasn’t an irrational worry. Pneumonia is the 8th-leading cause of death in the United States and the 4th-leading cause of death for people over 65, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. And morbidity rates increase with age: the older you are, the more susceptible you to succumb to pneumonia.
That’s why even though he didn’t end up dying from pneumonia (it was almost certainly due to this Bears game, though doctors disagree), it was good to be cautious of it. And as I learned, pneumonia isn’t just a winter thing. It is the product of a weakened immune system being unable to fight off the viruses and organisms that inflame the lungs and can happen anytime.
If you are over 65, or a loved one is, you should understand what pneumonia is, how you can catch it, and most importantly, how to prevent it. Being aware of how seniors can prevent pneumonia means that you don’t have to live in fear of it. Knowledge is the true first step toward freedom.
What is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is, simply, an infection of the lungs. It can be in one lung or both. There is no one “cause” of pneumonia, but it is a product of bacteria, viruses, or fungi invading the lungs. Whatever the specific variety, these tend to inflame the alveoli, which are the air sacs in your lungs. The alveoli then fill with fluid, making it difficult to breathe, and often causing a fever.
How Do I Catch Pneumonia?
There are many pneumonia-causing strains that are contagious, especially in large groups of people. Anyone of any age can get pneumonia, but older adults are particularly vulnerable. Typically, pneumonia affects you when you have a weakened immune system, like when you have a cold or the flu.
What Are Some of the Symptoms of Pneumonia?
While the presentation of pneumonia varies, these are some of the primary symptoms:
- Feeling weak
- Malaise or general lassitude
- Cough (particularly with green or yellow sputum)
- Shortness of breath
The problem here is that many of those are also symptoms of a cold and flu, and it can be difficult to determine whether those symptoms are truly pneumonia-related. But there are a few ways to tell, especially in older adults. Older adults tend to become more confused when they have pneumonia (as opposed to a cold). People with pneumonia also tend to experience more pain and more difficulty breathing, and, for reasons not entirely clear, older adults are less likely to have a fever.
If you are experiencing these symptoms without a fever or if symptoms persist, seek medical attention right away. A simple diagnostic test can determine if you have pneumonia, and diagnosis can be confirmed via chest X-ray or CT scan.
Why Are Seniors More Susceptible to Pneumonia?
This is a twofold question. We have to ask both
- Why do older adults tend to get pneumonia more?
- Why is there increased morbidity and mortality rates for older adults?
The first is due to lower overall health, generally. More time in hospitals, more infections, and more time around people who potentially have pneumonia add up to increased susceptibility. One problem is that weaker lungs have trouble expelling the germs that cause pneumonia. If a healthy younger person and a less-healthy older adult are both exposed, the younger person might expel the germs before they cause any trouble.
This also explains the increased mortality rates amongst older adults with pneumonia. As breathing becomes harder, it becomes more and more difficult to expel fluid, which keeps making breathing more difficult. It is a sad cycle. Additionally, the effort the body expends in clearing the lungs and fighting the virus weakens other areas, which is why we often hear about other types of organ failure (particularly in the GI tract) arising as a complication from pneumonia.
How Can Seniors Prevent Pneumonia?
Great question! Much like there is no one cause, there is no hard and fast way to completely avoid pneumonia. But there are steps you can take to lessen your chances of catching it.
- Immunization. There are a few different vaccines for different age groups, and they are taken at different times. I’m not a doctor, so I’ll defer to the CDC, who says adults over 65 should get “a dose of the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13) first. Then get a dose of the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23) at least 1 year later.” But of course, check with your doctor. Even if immunization doesn’t completely prevent pneumonia every time, it can greatly lessen its severity.
- Be aware of other sick people. It’s a fact of life that if you are susceptible to infection, you should avoid the infected. Grandparents with pneumonia should avoid seeing their infant grandchildren while they are infectious, and vice-versa. Also be careful in larger groups of older adults.
- Hygiene. So much of life comes down to good hygiene, and this is no exception. Wash your hands frequently to help prevent colds and flus that can lead to pneumonia. And practice good oral health as well; tooth and gum infections can open the door to lung infections.
- Stop smoking. This can’t be emphasized enough. Strong lungs fight pneumonia. Weak ones succumb to it. You can’t prevent every cause of weakness, but you don’t have to deliberately weaken them, either. Rates of pneumonia and its severity skyrocket for smokers.
- Better overall health. Practice good nutrition habits. Exercise. Practice essential health tips like being social, staying active, and doing what you love. Pneumonia is a sickness, but it is usually caused by other illnesses. It latches onto illnesses or infections, making its way into your body. Living healthily can help close that door.
Pneumonia is scary. It attacks our most essential physical need, making each breath more and more difficult. It’s a drowning weight, and there’s a reason why I was so afraid of it.
But it isn’t all-powerful. Even among older adults, the right practices can help lessen pneumonia’s unwelcome occurrence and its uninvited outcomes. Doing so can help you live the life you want, filled with exploration and adventure, with friendship and rich, easy laughter.
It means going out and inhaling deeply all life still has to offer.
At Institute on Aging, our programs and services help older adults, their families, and caregivers explore aging together, through good times and bad, as an adventure and a journey. Connect with us today to learn more.