Living Well

Health risks due to COVID-19 explained

Andrew Mayer, MD
Health risks due to COVID-19 explained

For months now, we all have been hearing about how dangerous the coronavirus is, especially to the most vulnerable in our population —our senior citizens and those who have serious pre-existing health conditions, regardless of age. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the latest statistics on just how devastating COVID-19 has been on those aged 65 and above, and the numbers are shocking. When compared to those younger:

  • People 65-74 are 6x more likely to be hospitalized and 90x more likely to die of COVID-19.
  • Those aged 75-84 are 8x higher to be hospitalized and 220x more likely to die.
  • Those 85 and older, are 13x higher to hospitalized and 660x more likely to die.

When you combine the number of COVID-19 deaths for those age 65 and older, nearly 81 percent of all fatalities in the United States occurred in that age group. There are roughly 49 million Americans today who are age 65 and older. For many, they are still very active and contributing significantly to society, but sadly, this age group has been dramatically impacted by the pandemic. That’s why the medical community is warning everyone, but especially seniors, not to let their guard down even though we seem to have gotten through the worst of this pandemic. It’s just a fact of life that as we age, we become more susceptible to disease or have underlying medical problems, and it’s that combination that can put you in danger if you are exposed to the coronavirus.

Why is COVID-19 so dangerous to older adults?

Everyone, regardless of age, has what is known as an immune system, an amazing process that occurs in our body that acts as our defense system against infection. When we are exposed to a foreign substance, like a cold virus, our immune system goes into action and fights that virus, so we get well. As we age, though, our immune system weakens, making it difficult to fight off infections. There are many things that can weaken an immune system, such as:

  • Cancer treatment drugs
  • Immune deficiencies
  • Smoking
  • Prolonged use of medications
  • Other medical issues such as heart, lung, and liver disease, diabetes, and obesity

Because older citizens tend to be on many different medications and may have multiple underlying diseases, the ability to fight something as deadly as COVID-19 is dramatically impacted, and for way too many they are unable to recover from this virus.

Four ways seniors can protect themselves from COVID-19

While stay-at-home orders are easing a bit, officials say if you do suffer from a severe illness or have a known weakened immune system, it’s best to let someone else do your shopping and run your errands until this virus is entirely under control. For those not at high-risk, getting out is now possible, but officials emphasize following strict guidelines to keep yourself safe:

  • When in public, always wear a mask or face covering as COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets from a cough or sneeze.
  • Regardless of where you are, avoid touching your face, mouth, or eyes as the virus can be contracted through those body surfaces
  • Wash your hands often and carry hand sanitizer and use it often when out in public, especially after opening doors or touching surfaces
  • Social distance as much as possible, which means staying six feet away from the closest person

Following these basic rules will help, but doctors say if you aren’t feeling your best, or if you are showing any signs of illness, you should stay home and ask a family member or neighbor for help if you should need anything.

Don't ignore other health issues due to fear of COVID-19

There is a growing concern that a lot of people, including many seniors, are ignoring ongoing health issues because of their fear of getting the virus, and that can be very dangerous. If you have other medical problems that need attention, there are now a few ways of getting help while limiting your exposure to the public. Telehealth is booming and will continue to grow, and that’s good news for seniors. By using a computer or smartphone, you can now schedule a virtual doctor’s visit and never leave your home. And here at West Jefferson Medical Center, we now have a senior-friendly emergency room where you can schedule an appointment and not arrive until that appointment time, limiting your exposure in a patient waiting room. Once you arrive, you are brought to a senior-friendly exam room where the medical staff will treat you within the confines of that room. So, know that if you are not feeling well or have concerns with current medical issues, there are ways of getting medical treatment while at the same time, limiting your exposure to the public.

You can learn more about our senior care emergency room and all the ways we make our seniors feel extra special by visiting wjmc.org/senior.

About Dr. Andrew Mayer: 
Dr. Andrew (Andy) Mayer is a board-certified emergency physician and is the medical director of the West Jefferson Medical Center's Emergency Department. He grew up on the Westbank and has been proudly working at West Jefferson for the last thirty years.