The 2018 flu season is one of the worst in modern memory. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the disease an epidemic based on its medical impact, as hospitalizations across the country soared. It continued to spread as January waned, because contracting it is easier than previously thought: just breathing puts you at risk. While scientists report a “universal” flu vaccine is in the works, we’re not there yet.
How does this year’s flu compare with the pandemic of one hundred years ago?
The 1918 outbreak infected half a billion people worldwide, decimating three to five percent of the global population at that time (50-100 million people) — more than three to six times the number of lives lost in WWI.
And while life expectancy in 1918 (36.6 years for men, 42.2 years for women) was only about half what it is today, the flu afflicted over 25 percent of the U.S. population, dropping the average life expectancy in this country by 12 years.
All of which is pretty scary. Back then, of course, we didn’t have the diagnostic technologies and array of vaccines available today. So why is the current flu virus claiming the lives of healthy young people as well as older ones?
Are your seniors safe?
Part of the reason may be that people today expect to recover from the flu, which hits every winter like clockwork. Some choose to get the flu shot as a preventive measure; some choose to ride it out if they get sick. But very few fear dying from something almost as common as the cold. And that may be part of the problem.
A “little cold” can quickly become a big deal in the elderly. Depending on someone’s immunity, the cold can escalate to pneumonia at an alarming rate, landing a senior in the ICU when the day before it was just an annoying cough.
Many seniors are also reluctant to visit the doctor. They’ve lived a long life and survived worse, they think, including world wars and unimaginable losses. What’s the fuss about the flu?
State of immunity
It depends on the condition of someone’s immune system. One woman in her nineties had had a recent dental extraction and was also suffering from an undiagnosed UTI when she caught a cold. With her body’s adaptive responses exhausted — and the doctor visit delayed almost a week — her symptoms spiraled into pneumonia, and she was hospitalized, placed on antibiotics and a powerful steroid to reduce bronchial inflammation.
Another senior of the same age also contracted what felt like a cold. But unlike the woman just described, he was healthy, with no pre-existing conditions, on no meds except for a mild blood pressure pill, and hadn’t had so much as a cold in two decades. He went to the doctor the day after he fell ill, was diagnosed with bronchitis, and given a prescription for antibiotics and a steroid as a preventive measure, as well as over-the-counter cough medicine.
He began taking the cough medicine, drank lots of warm liquids, and started feeling better almost immediately. He chose not to take the prescription medications since his illness was viral, not bacterial (antibiotics do not help a cold; that’s why it’s known as the cold virus and not the cold bacteria). It was a bit of a risky move for an elderly person, yet he recovered rapidly since no other health issues compromised his immunity.
Staying alert saves lives
As Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal, proclaimed, old age is not a disease. HECM professionals can help ensure the well being of the seniors you serve by being aware of their state of health when you talk to or meet with them.
Changes in how someone looks or sounds might necessitate a medical intervention. It’s also crucial that a senior knows how to take care of himself or herself on a day-to-day basis. If you feel it is appropriate, you might want to alert any designated family member(s).
One resource that may be helpful is integrated medicine, which includes complementary remedies for building immunity. Does this mean someone who’s sick should forgo a doctor visit and prescription medication? Not at all. However, learning how to boost our immunity when we’re well is smart, and may mean we won’t need those antibiotics — or a hospitalization — down the road.