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Older adults are at greater risk of serious complications from COVID-19. Here's why.

Older adults face the greatest risk of becoming seriously ill if they're infected with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Senior citizens who develop the virus tend to become sicker than younger people and are more likely to die from it. A weaker immune system and underlying health conditions may make it more difficult for your mother, father, grandmother or grandfather to fight the infection.


Your Immune System Is Less Effective as You Age

Your body's immune system is designed to find and attack viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi as soon as they enter your body. The second your immune system detects invading cells, called antigens, white blood cell production increases. If your immune system is healthy and functioning normally, you may avoid an illness completely or become only mildly or moderately ill after exposure. As you age, your immune system becomes less effective at fighting viruses and other antigens. It may struggle to identify antigens that can make you sick and produces fewer cells that attack antigens. This makes it less effective at reaching and killing the invading cells.

Underlying Health Conditions Make It Harder to Fight Viral Infections

Chronic health conditions and diseases may also affect your ability to fight viruses. About 92% of older adults have one chronic condition and 77% have at least two chronic conditions, according to estimates from the National Council on Aging. Health conditions that may complicate your recovery from the coronavirus include:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Lung conditions, like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Cancer
  • Immune system disorders

Some chronic illnesses, like diabetes, may make the immune system function less efficiently. The coronavirus may worsen respiratory conditions, putting additional strain on the heart and increasing the risk of pneumonia. The ability to mount an effective attack against a virus can also be limited if you take medications that suppress the immune system, such as chemotherapy or anti-rejection drugs. Although smoking isn't a condition, the habit can damage the lungs and slow your recovery from a viral illness.

In China, people with coronavirus who had cardiovascular disease had the highest death rate at 10.5%, followed by diabetes (7.3%), chronic respiratory disease (6.3%), high blood pressure (6%) and cancer (5.6%). These figures appeared in a report prepared by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

How You Can Help Protect Older Relatives

Staying away from public places is one of the best ways for older people to avoid the coronavirus. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people over age 60 stay at home as much as possible. You can help your parents or grandparents by shopping for them and taking care of other errands so they don't go out. Remind them to wash their hands often. Check in with older relatives frequently, but if you feel ill or come in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19, avoid face-to-face visits for at least 14 days.

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Date Last Reviewed: March 16, 2020
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD
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