What can older adults do to reduce their risk of illness?
Older adults and people with chronic underlying health conditions are more likely than younger, healthier people to experience serious illness from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Severe illness means that the person with COVID-19 may require hospitalization, intensive care or help breathing to overcome the illness. There is no specific age at which risk increases. Rather, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says “risk increases steadily as you age” with the greatest risk for severe illness being among those age 85 and older. Ninety-five percent of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have occurred among people who were 50 or older. Eight out of 10 COVID-19 deaths reported in the U.S. have been in people 65 and older, according to the latest demographic data available from the CDC.
Part of the reason risk increases with age is that people are more likely to have other health issues later in life, and underlying health conditions are a huge driver of complications that arise from COVID-19. A June report from the CDC found that hospitalizations for people with COVID-19 were six times as high for patients with chronic health conditions, compared to otherwise healthy individuals; deaths among this population were 12 times as high.
People of any age with the following conditions are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, according to the CDC:
Serious heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease or cardiomyopathies
Chronic kidney disease
COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
Obesity (BMI of 30 or greater)
Severe obesity (BMI of 40 or greater)
Sickle cell disease
Immunocompromised state from solid organ transplantation
Type 2 diabetes
People with the following conditions might be at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19:
Asthma (moderate to severe)
Hypertension or high blood pressure
Neurologic conditions, such as dementia
Overweight (BMI between 25 and 30)
Pulmonary fibrosis (having damaged or scarred lung tissue)
Thalassemia (a blood disorder)
Type 1 diabetes
Weakened immune system from blood or bone marrow transplant, immune deficiencies, HIV, use of corticosteroids, or use of other immune-weakening medicines
The CDC has issued specific guidance for older adults and people at high risk for serious outcomes. Here’s what the agency recommends:
Avoid close contact with others
The best way to dodge a coronavirus infection is to avoid being exposed to the virus. Older adults and people with underlying health conditions are encouraged to limit interactions with people outside their household as much as possible and to take preventive measures when interactions do take place. Keep a distance of at least 6 feet from others; wash your hands often with soap and water (or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not an option); cover your coughs and sneezes; and disinfect high-touch surfaces often.
New guidance from the CDC defines close contact as being within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. People who come into close contact with someone who has COVID-19 are advised to quarantine for two weeks, ideally. The CDC recently updated its guidance to say a 10-day quarantine is an acceptable alternative if no symptoms are noticed — so is a seven-day quarantine if the person in quarantine tests negative for the virus after seven days of staying away from others.
The CDC also recommends wearing a cloth face covering over your nose and mouth in public or when around people outside of your household to help slow the spread of the virus. Widespread use of face coverings can help to slow or stop the transmission of the virus in communities.
It’s a good idea to draft a plan in case you do become sick, experts say. Identify a designated sickroom in your home that can be used to separate sick household members from healthy ones. And locate aid organizations in your community that you can contact for help should you need it.
Older Americans and adults who routinely take medications should make sure they have at least a 30-day supply of prescription medicines on hand to cut down on the number of trips you need to make to the pharmacy. It’s also important to have over-the-counter medications in the house to treat fever, cough and other symptoms, as well as tissues and common medical supplies.
If you need to run out for necessities, the CDC has guidance on how to do so safely. On the list:
Wear a mask.
Stay at least 6 feet away from others while shopping and while in line.
Consider running your errands first thing in the morning or at the end of the day when fewer people are likely to be shopping. Some stores have special shopping hours for high-risk individuals.
Disinfect your shopping cart or basket with disinfectant wipes.
Use hand sanitizer right away if you handle money, a card or a keypad.
Wash your hands when you get home.
When getting gasoline, use disinfectant wipes on handles and buttons before you touch them; use hand sanitizer immediately after.
Headed to the bank? Use drive-through banking services, automated teller machines (ATMs) or mobile banking apps for routine transactions that do not require face-to-face assistance as much as possible.