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Why The Elderly Are More Susceptible To Viruses Like COVID-19

Physician doing medical interview with elderly patient

Daily updates on new cases of COVID-19 and deaths related to the illness often include people 65 and older. Why do the elderly tend to be more susceptible to viral infections?

People younger than 65 have also fallen victim to the disease, but a report released in late March provided a comprehensive estimate of elderly people’s elevated risk of serious illness and death from the new coronavirus: COVID-19 kills an estimated 13.4% of patients 80 and older, compared to 1.25% of those in their 50s and 0.3% of those in their 40s.

The sharpest divide came at age 70. Although 4% of patients in their 60s died, more than twice that, or 8.6%, of those in their 70s did.

KERA Vital Signs host Sam Baker talked about why this divide exists with Dr. Raja Paspula, a geriatric specialist and the senior lead staff physician of Parkland Hospital’s Community Oriented Primary Care Centers.


Preexisting Conditions

The elderly are more likely to have preexisting conditions known as comorbidities. These include:

  • Heart disease,
  • Diabetes
  • Lung disease
  • COPD
  • Asthma
  • Hypertension
  • Cancer
  • Immunocompromised state
  • Liver disease
  • Chronic kidney disease

Biological Aging And Declining Immunity

The immune system is like an internal defense mechanism — but it grows weaker as we age. Older people aren’t as good in reacting to microorganisms they haven't encountered before.

Two Sets Of Defenses

Our immune system has two sets of defenses: The first-line army of cells called leukocytes that attack microbes within minutes or hours. The second-line force have precisely targeted antibodies, T-cells, that surge to battle front. As we get older, the response becomes late, so that's causing the elderly to become more prone to these infections.

Social & Economic Factors

Access to safe housing, nutritious food, economic resources, social support systems and quality health care are some of the non-biological determinants. Lack of this obviously leads to more covert infections and that's what we are seeing a large number of.

Living In Nursing Homes

[These residents] are much sicker than the community population. They have more comorbid conditions, they have less immunity and they are living in close proximity with the other elderly patients, making them more prone to these infections.

Elderly Deaths From Viral Infections Despite Vaccines

The way we can explain that is a young person who gets vaccinated has better immunity. There's something called immunity memory where the younger person’s body will be able to recognize any type of virus in the future as opposed to the elderly. The immunity memory kind of decreases as we age. That's why they're more prone to these infections, including flu and other infections, though they have vaccinations.

How Elderly People Can Protect Themselves

  • Washing hands with soap and water at least 20 seconds or using hand sanitizers.
  • Social distancing, keeping a six feet distance from one another and are using face masks if they're going outside.
  • Make sure they have enough refills of medication, food supplies and medical supplies so they’re not going too often.
  • Telemedicine: If the visit is not urgent, the patient definitely can speak to their doctor


Coronavirus: Caregiving for the Elderly

CDC: COVID-19 & Older Adults

Impact of aging on viral infections

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.