Coronavirus: What Older Adults Need to Know to Stay Healthy

By Nancy Fitzgerald |

The new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has upended daily life, but there’s a lot you can and should do to protect yourself.

coronavirus

All around the world, the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has grabbed our attention—and for good reason. This respiratory illness can spread easily from person to person, and serious cases can lead to pneumonia and hospitalization.

“Our understanding is evolving day by day,” says Gary LeRoy, M.D., president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “One thing’s for sure: It’s a serious virus, so we all need to take the necessary precautions.”

If you’re 65 years or older, you should know you’re at higher risk. That’s because the older you get, the less robust your immune system is likely to be. You may have a tougher time shaking off any virus, including coronavirus, than you would at 20.

“Plus, when you get to a certain age, you’re more likely to have accumulated some other health conditions, which can complicate the way the virus acts in your body,” says Dr. LeRoy.

In other words, if you have heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, or any other condition and you get sick from coronavirus, you may have more serious complications than someone who doesn’t have a condition.

Scary? Yes—we’re all human. But experts stress there’s a lot you can and should do to protect yourself. Here’s what to do right now, as well as steps to take should you get sick.

What Everyone 65+ Should Do

Because there’s currently no vaccine for coronavirus and because it spreads easily, prevention should be at the top of everyone’s minds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For older adults, it’s vital—and potentially lifesaving—to put them into practice. Here’s what the CDC recommends.

Avoid Crowds of All Sizes

Even if your community is not experiencing an outbreak at this time, this currently means skipping the mall, the gym, and activities at your local community center. In fact, many of these locations may close temporarily to slow the spread of coronavirus.

If there are cases in your area, your local health officials may have more specific instructions. Check your local news, or with your state or local health department. You can find information for state health departments here.

Worried about missing out on exercise or social opportunities? Good news: If you’re a SilverSneakers member, you can take advantage of free SilverSneakers On-Demand workout and nutrition videos. Plus, check out these ideas to stay socially connected—from afar.

Keep Your Distance

Whether you call it “social distancing” or “physical distancing,” this means putting about six feet between yourself and others as much as reasonably possible. If you need to pick up groceries, medications, or household essentials, try to go when it’s less crowded, or ask a loved one for help.

Wash Your Hands Often—and Correctly

Lather up with plain soap and water of any temperature, and gently scrub your hands together for at least 20 seconds. Don’t forget the back of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. Finish by drying your hands.

Mind the Germ Hot Spots

At home, disinfect “high-touch” surfaces, such as doorknobs, light switches, counters, tables, faucets, toilets, and remotes. For any “disinfecting” products, follow the instructions for best results.

If it’s necessary to leave the house—say, your doctor says you need to be seen in person—minimize contact with door handles, elevator buttons, and the like. Cover your hands with a tissue, and wash your hands afterward.

Postpone Travel

Whether you were planning to go on a cruise, fly to another country, or hop on a train to another state, you may need to rearrange your plans. Currently, the CDC recommends older adults avoid cruises and nonessential flights.

Ships and ports, planes and airports, and trains and stations tend to be exceptionally crowded places, so there’s a high risk of coming into contact with people and their germs. And if you’re going somewhere remote, it may be harder to get medical care if you get sick.

Check the latest coronavirus and travel guidelines here.

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If You Have Heart Problems

High blood pressure (a.k.a. hypertension) or heart disease can increase your risk of developing serious complications if you get infected with coronavirus, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

In the earliest cases, 31 percent of people who were hospitalized with COVID-19 had high blood pressure, and almost 15 percent had cardiovascular disease, according to JAMA.

“Coronavirus can lead to buildup of fluid in the lungs, and that puts greater strain on the heart,” explains Manish Trivedi, M.D., director of infectious diseases at AtlantiCare, a health system in New Jersey.

What to do: Be sure you’re up to date on your pneumococcal vaccine, and continue taking your prescribed medications. See the AHA coronavirus recommendations for heart problems here.

If You Have Diabetes

Whether you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, high blood sugar levels can weaken your immune system and make it harder to treat viral infections, like coronavirus, says Dr. Trivedi.

Viral infections can also increase inflammation in people with diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). And a combination of inflammation and high blood sugar can put you at risk for more serious complications.

What to do: Take extra care to manage your blood sugar, and review or ask for your “sick day” plan from your doctor. Have medications and testing strips on hand, as well as simple carbs like soda or hard candies in case your blood sugar gets too low. See the ADA coronavirus recommendations for diabetes here.

If You Have Lung Disease

Coronavirus causes respiratory illness, so it may hit people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, or other lung problems especially hard, according to the American Lung Association (ALA).

“These people already have impaired breathing,” says Dr. Trivedi.

What to do: Have supplies of any medications on hand, and know how to use your inhaler if you have one. Review or ask for a “COPD action plan” or an “asthma action plan” from your doctor so you know what to do if your lung symptoms flare up. See the ALA coronavirus recommendations for lung disease here.

What to Do If You’re Sick

The CDC recommends watching for three key symptoms of coronavirus:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

If these seem familiar, it’s because they unfortunately mirror some of the top signs of cold or flu. Because of the overlap, it’s important that you call your doctor if you begin to experience any of these signs or if your existing symptoms get worse.

Explain your symptoms, and follow any advice you get to a T, says Dr. Trivedi. You will be given instructions that are specific to your health needs, including if you should go to a medical facility and any safety steps you need to take before going.

Because coronavirus spreads easily, do not go to your doctor’s office without calling ahead first. If you have it, you could pass it on to others. If you don’t have it, you could catch it from someone else.

When to Get Emergency Help

The CDC also recommends getting immediate medical care if you have these coronavirus warning signs:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion
  • Bluish lips or face
  • Any other emergency signs your doctor has indicated

Call 911, and be as specific as you can about your symptoms. Follow any instructions they give you.

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Additional reporting by Elizabeth Millard.

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