Why Is Coronavirus More Serious In Older People?

March 20, 2020

Worldwide, confirmed cases of “novel coronavirus” (technically called 2019-nCoV) are increasing daily. The World Health Organization has deemed COVID-19 a pandemic.

Unfortunately, since our original post of this blog, the number of cases along with mortality are continuing to increase in the U.S.  There is evidence that people age 50 and over are at a higher risk for serious infection or even death. There are two main reasons.

  1. Our immune systems weaken as we age

Doctor listening through a stethescope on an older woman's back

At age 50, every part of your body is twice as old as it was at age 25 – including your immune system! Wounds don’t heal as fast, and it takes longer to recover from even minor illnesses. The medical term is immunosenescence. The aging immune system just can’t fight off illness as effectively as it once did.

For example, a case of chickenpox is usually relatively mild for a young child. But for adults, chickenpox can be far more serious. Adult chickenpox may “cause complications like pneumonia or encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain.”

  1. Older people are more likely to have chronic illnesses

Doctor examining older man's eyes

According to the National Council on Aging, 80% of seniors have at least one chronic illness, while 68% have two. A chronic illness means that your body is already having to work harder. When a new pathogen is introduced, the already-stressed immune system has a harder time fighting it off.

What We Know about this Coronavirus

Coronavirus blood lab test

There are many types of coronaviruses, and the vast majority aren’t dangerous. Most cases of the common cold, for example, are caused by two coronavirus types: OC43 and 229E.  These viruses differ from influenza viruses. After a vaccination or case of the flu, most people are immune to that strain for the rest of their lives.

In contrast, antibodies against coronaviruses don’t last long in your system. That’s why we can get multiple colds every year. This lack of any natural immunity is a particular problem with new infections like 2019-nCoV virus. It’s believed to have spread to humans from wild animal populations, so we have no existing immunity.

How to Protect Yourself from Coronavirus

Washing hands under kitchen sink faucet

First, visit the World Health Organization’s “Novel Coronavirus Mythbusters” page. It addresses common questions and concerns about the virus.  Topics like:

  • Is it safe to receive a letter or package from China? Yes
  • Is it spread by pets? No
  • Does sesame oil prevent the virus from entering the body? No

Remember that it’s a respiratory virus, so anything you normally do to prevent yourself from getting colds or flu will also help protect you from the new coronavirus.

  • Wash your hands frequently using soap or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth. You may inadvertently transfer the virus from your unwashed hands.
  • Avoid crowds, particularly if you have a compromised immune system.
  • In social situations, keep your distance from other people – wear protective gloves, a N95 face mask, and even eye-wear.
  • Seek medical care if you experience cold or flu-like symptoms – particularly if you’ve been in contact with someone who has traveled to China recently or if cases have been reported nearby.

At this time, it is important to stay up to date with current and reputable news surrounding COVID-19. Many states have issued Shelter in Place advisories as well as social distancing. There are still cases of people going to public beaches, parks, group events, etc. which the cities are now taking into their hands by issuing fines. It is very important that we remain in this situation together.

Whether we are young or old, it is important to follow CDC guidelines in order to remain healthy and decrease the chances of spreading the virus. Keeping yourself and your loved ones safe is what matters most. 

If you need more information and/or are worried about the spread of the virus in your area, the CDC’s 2019 Novel Coronavirus information hub is updated frequently with new data and recommendations.


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