Vaccine 411

By Kristen Castillo

December 21, 2015 5 min read

Staying healthy is a priority at any age, particularly as a senior. Medical experts advocate getting vaccines to protect against dangerous illnesses, including the flu, shingles and pneumonia.

"As we get older, our immune systems tend to weaken, putting us at higher risk for certain diseases, including the flu and shingles," says Stephen Friedhoff, chief medical officer at Anthem's Government Business Division. "Both diseases can cause serious complications, so older adults should be vaccinated."

Doctors say it's not worth it to avoid vaccines.

"If people do not take vaccines, they are obviously susceptible to the diseases that the vaccines are intended to prevent," says pulmonary specialist Len Horovitz. "That can be fatal."


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, getting a flu shot every season is important because the body's immune response to vaccines declines over time and the annual shot provides "optimal protection." Plus, because flu viruses change all the time, flu vaccines are updated to keep up with changes.

The trivalent flu shot protects against two influenza A viruses and one influenza B virus. The newest flu vaccine, the quadrivalent shot, protects against two influenza A viruses and two influenza B viruses. Typically, flu vaccines are available by shot or nasal spray.

If you're allergic to eggs or vaccines, don't get a flu shot. Eggs are used to make the shot.

"Although not foolproof, the flu vaccine may help prevent older adults from getting the flu or at least result in them getting a less severe infection," says Friedhoff.

Without vaccination, seniors are at high risk of serious flu complications.

The CDC estimates that 80 to 90 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths occur in people 65 or older. It also says that 50 to 70 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations affect the 65-or-over age group.


Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, results in a painful skin rash on one side of the face or body. The shingles vaccine can reduce the risk of developing the illness and the long-term discomfort that can linger.

"An estimated 1 million Americans get shingles every year," says Friedhoff. "Even mild cases of shingles are painful. In the worst cases, shingles can lead to chronic pain, vision loss or even brain swelling."

Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox.

"A shingles vaccine is recommended for anyone over 50 who has had chickenpox in the past," says Horovitz. "There is a one-third risk of shingles over a person's lifetime if he or she has had chickenpox."

Even seniors who've previously had shingles should get the vaccine because it can help prevent future shingles occurrences. A shingles vaccination typically lasts five years.


The pneumonia vaccine, called PPSV23 or Pneumovax, is recommended for people over age 65.

"A year after the Pneumovax, they should get Prevnar, which prevents additional strains of pneumococcal pneumonia," says Horovitz, explaining that anyone with underlying pulmonary conditions, including smokers or asthmatics, should get Pneumovax before age 65.

According to CDC data, a Netherlands study of 85,000 people over age 65 found that the Prevnar 13 vaccine was 75 percent effective in preventing pneumococcal pneumonia.


Protection from these dangerous illnesses is important. Luckily, insurance typically covers the costs.

"In general, the costs of both the flu vaccine and the shingles vaccine are covered by Medicare parts B and D, respectively," says Friedhoff, noting that vaccines not only prevent illness but also save patients "the cost and aggravation of a doctor and/or hospital visit."

Getting vaccines early in the season is always advisable so you're protected from illness and to ensure your medical providers don't run out of the vaccines. The vaccines are quick to administer and can protect you from serious illnesses.

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