By Dr. Eduardo G. Gonzales
Q—My 84-year-old aunt died last week of hospital-acquired pneumonia. She is just one of many other senior citizens I know who succumbed to this disease. What is pneumonia and why are the elderly prone to it?—[email protected]
A—Pneumonia is inflammation of the lungs that affects the tiny air sacs known as alveoli. It is in the alveoli where blood extracts oxygen from inhaled air. When the alveoli are inflamed, blood is not oxygenated adequately and not enough oxygen can be delivered to all the different tissues and organs of the body.
Pneumonia can be brought about by a lot of factors, but most are due to infections. The disease ranges from mild to severe, and sometimes, especially in the elderly, it can be fatal. Pneumonia is a major cause of mortality among the elderly because they are more vulnerable to this condition. What’s more, when they do catch pneumonia, their chances of developing the severe and life-threatening form of the disease is greater than young adults.
Why seniors are susceptible to pneumonia
The functional decline of many organ systems brought about by the aging process mainly accounts for the vulnerability of seniors to pneumonia and for their inability to readily recover from the disease. For one, our immune system weakens as we age, thus among the elderly, infections are easy to acquire and hard to fight off. Another seemingly trivial reason: by simply coughing, we can remove infectious elements from our lungs, but among seniors, muscular weakness reduces their ability to cough out secretions from their lungs, and when they can’t cough, they can’t rid their lungs of infectious elements.
Their weakened immune system also makes seniors susceptible to complications of generally benign infections such as the flu or the common cold. Often, this complication is another infection that brings about pneumonia.
Furthermore, seniors often have concomitant chronic diseases that put them at higher risk for pneumonia. Diabetes, arteriosclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and lung conditions such as chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD) and bronchiectasis are just some of these conditions that commonly afflict the elderly, increasing their risk for pneumonia.
Likewise, most seniors take maintenance medications, and many of these drugs such as steroids and chemotherapy can suppress the immune system.
Another reason many seniors succumb to pneumonia is that, as in the case of your aunt, their pneumonia is hospital-acquired. Elderly people who get hospitalized for an extended period of time for another condition such as heart failure or hypertension often develop pneumonia because pathogenic bacteria abound in hospitals since many hospital patients have active infections. Hospital-acquired pneumonia is notoriously difficult to treat because the microorganisms that cause it are often antibiotic-resistant.
Still another reason for seniors’ susceptibility to pneumonia is the fact that because of their weakened immune system, vaccines are less effective. Nevertheless, seniors should still be immunized against the flu and the streptococcus pneumonia bacteria, the most common cause of pneumonia.
Steps to prevent pneumonia in the elderly
To a certain extent, pneumonia in the elderly is preventable. Here are some measures seniors can take to avoid getting this disease:
- Get immunized against flu (flu vaccine) and streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcal vaccine). The flu vaccine is an annual vaccine while the pneumococcal vaccine is a one-time vaccine.
- Avoid close contact with sick people. Wear a face mask when going to a place where the chance of getting in contact with sick people is high. Also, people should be in good health when they come to visit a senior. If relatives regularly gather together at the senior’s house every Saturday evening, those who have coughs and colds, from the grandchildren to their yayas, should skip the week.
- Avoid crowded and congested places.
- Keep your home clean.
- Be meticulous in your personal hygiene. Wash hands with soap and water often.
(Email inquiries on health matters to: [email protected])