When you hear about shingles—a viral infection characterized by a painful rash that often appears on the torso—you probably think about it affecting an older individual rather than a younger one. And for good reason—this condition is most commonly seen in people over 50 years old. In fact, according to the National Institute on Aging, approximately half of all shingles cases occur in people aged 60 and older, and the risk of developing shingles becomes significantly greater by the time someone reaches age 70. The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases has also stated that about half of the individuals who live to age 85 will develop shingles at some point in their lifetime.
Not only does shingles appear more often in the elderly population, but it also tends to produce far more serious complications and lead to more hospitalizations and deaths among seniors. While shingles typically causes fewer than 100 deaths each year, almost all of those deaths occur among seniors and individuals with compromised immune systems.
So, why exactly does shingles affect aging adults more so than younger individuals? Although researchers are still trying to determine what causes shingles to develop, there are at least a couple potential explanations for why the elderly are more affected by this condition.
Weakened Immune System
Scientists believe that older individuals are more likely to develop shingles due to the age-related weakening of their immune systems. The immune system, which is responsible for protecting someone from infection, naturally becomes weaker as a person grows older. So, the older a person gets, the more susceptible he or she will become to developing shingles and other illnesses. Someone may also have a weakened immune system—and thereby be at a higher risk of developing shingles—due to having another condition like cancer or HIV/AIDS, or as a result of treatment with chemotherapy or radiation.
Greater Exposure to Chickenpox
Another reason why shingles tends to predominantly affect aging adults is that seniors are likely to have had chickenpox at some point in their lives. Shingles and chickenpox are caused by the same virus: the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). Once someone develops chickenpox (usually as a child), this virus remains inactive in some of his or her nerve cells. If and when the virus becomes active again later in life, it develops into shingles rather than chickenpox.
When compared to today’s youth, seniors are much more likely to have had chickenpox. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) generally recommends that children today receive two doses of the chickenpox vaccine, it’s important to remember that this vaccine wasn’t added to the childhood immunization schedule until 1995, meaning that older individuals who grew up before that time had a much greater chance of developing chickenpox. In fact, according to the CDC, more than 99% of Americans who were born prior to 1980 have had chickenpox. Because today’s children are less likely to contract chickenpox than their predecessors thanks to the vaccine, it stands to reason that they’ll also be less likely to have shingles when they’re older.
In-Home Care for Seniors With Shingles
If you suspect that an elderly loved one has shingles, you’re probably dreading having to take him or her to the doctor for diagnosis and treatment. Shingles can be extremely painful—some people can’t even bear to have lightweight bedsheets touch their skin—so having to leave the house, travel to a physician’s office, and sit in a waiting room could take quite a toll on your loved one.
Fortunately, there’s an alternative available that will spare you from this ordeal: an in-home visit from the skilled providers at DispatchHealth. Our teams are equipped with almost all of the tools and supplies found in an emergency room, yet our services cost a fraction of what you could expect to pay at the ER (approximately the same as an urgent care visit). And to ensure continuity of care, we’ll gladly provide a detailed report to your loved one’s primary care doctor and/or assisted living community.
If you’d like to request a visit from DispatchHealth, you can do so by phone, through our mobile app, or via our website. We’ll be happy to arrange an appointment and answer any questions you might have about our mobile healthcare services.
DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.
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