What makes seniors more at risk

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in China, we’ve known that older people have the highest mortality rates of anyone should they contract the virus.

As the illness has progressed and infected America, we’ve learned in even more detail about this. We now know that 13.4% of patients who are 80 and older die because of COVID-19.

Yet those in their 40s only have about 0.3% risk of mortality should they get the virus.

The real turning point seems to come between one’s 60s and 70s, where rates double between the decades.

Knowing this doesn’t explain why or how this happens. It also doesn’t do anything to educate a person in these age ranges what to do besides worry.

A closer look

Let’s take a closer look at COVID-19, so those at risk can better understand what they can do to stay safe. The virus mainly attacks lung tissue.

People who die from COVID-19 do so primarily from respiratory failure. So, it’s not age alone that determines someone’s mortality risk with the virus. Having chronic, underlying conditions may be the most telling factor.

Any pre-existing condition which diminishes the body’s ability to absorb and circulate oxygen would undoubtedly increase the virus’s likelihood to kill.

But these conditions are also indications that the body is already susceptible to illness. If they then contract the virus, their resources are too limited to fight it off effectively because other conditions weaken their immune system.

A brief lesson in biology

When people age, their body’s immune system produces less of the T cells needed to fight off new pathogens they encounter.

By the time a person is in their 40s or 50s they have approximately 100 times less T cells than when they were a child.

Some of these are “memory” T cells that learn how to destroy a particular virus and can protect the person for decades. So, fewer T cells mean less memory T cells available to learn to fight new illnesses.

Additionally, older people’s bodies tend to over-respond by sending too many cytokines, inflammatory molecules that are a part of the immune system’s defense to COVID-19. Cytokines are proteins that signal to the body to increase its infection-fighting defenses.

This barrage of cytokines is known as a cytokine storm and leads to severe inflammation, fever and organ failure.

This phenomenon is one of the leading causes of death from COVID-19.

But it’s not all bad news.

Hope for the future

Knowing what we’ve learned so far, this data can be a lot more beneficial than just age-related statistics. It tells us that underlying health conditions are more important than a person’s age.

An otherwise healthy person has a much better chance of surviving COVID-19, regardless of their age. An absence of underlying conditions is an indication of a healthy body and immune system.

And stories are emerging about people as old as 90 surviving this illness. Knowing these things, anything done to bolster one’s health in these times should be considered, especially for seniors.

Just because it can be deadly doesn’t mean it has to be.

Marcel Gemme started his career in the field of substance abuse 20 years ago and has helped countless families find proper rehabilitation and treatment for their loved ones. He resides in Florida.


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