For older adults living with dementia, experts say don't skip the flu vaccine.
The common flu vaccine is designed to prevent influenza. When it doesn’t prevent flu, it’s been shown to reduce the risk of severe symptoms, hospitalization and death from the virus. For cognitively healthy older adults, getting one’s annual flu shot has been shown to protect brain health. Experts say it’s also extremely important for older adults living with dementia.
“We definitely strongly think that routine vaccination during the flu season will be essential in the care of older adults,” Vanessa Rodriguez, a geriatrics and palliative care physician at Martha Stewart Center for Living in New York City, told Being Patient in a 2020 interview.
Rodriguez said her patients with dementia often have underlying conditions that put them at higher risk for complications for the flu compared to older adults who are healthy. Those who have heart failure, and rely on water pills that help the kidneys flush out unneeded water and salt, may be even more dehydrated if they have the flu, she said. After all, it is common for people to lose their appetites, eating and drinking less when they are sick.
She added that older adults with diabetes who have the flu and lose their appetite can experience an overly low blood sugar level, also known as hypoglycemia, which can be a serious complication. And, patients with respiratory illnesses like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease who contract flu are more susceptible to respiratory complications. They may experience problems with breathing, requiring treatment in the hospital.
“Some of them can get so sick that they can get pneumonia on top of their influenza,” Rodriguez said. “That’s one of the worst complications.”
Some older adults with dementia may be at higher risk of exposure to the flu than those living independently as they are cared for by home aids, she noted. Some of the home aides have families, other jobs or take public transportation, increasing their risk of exposure to the flu.
“It’s good to encourage family members, caregivers of the person who is older and has dementia, to get vaccinated,” said Ronan Factora, a geriatrician at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu vaccination prevented roughly 4.4 million flu illnesses, along with 58,000 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths linked to the flu from 2018 to 2019.
While some people who get the flu vaccine may still get the flu, according to Shaffner, their illness is likely to be less severe. They are less likely to to be hospitalized and admitted to an intensive care unit. And they are less likely to die.