Are you willing to let the flu take your independence?

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Are you willing to let the flu take your independence?

Dr Janet McElhaney“Around 15% of older people admitted to hospital with the flu lose two or more basic self-care functions through that stay in hospital,” says Dr Janet McElhaney, geriatrician, professor and research chair in healthy ageing at the Health Sciences North Research Institute in Canada.

That loss of independence could cost you dearly. It could also mean your family has to step in to care for you and wider society loses the valuable contribution you make to the community. Dr McElhaney adds: “Many older people are still working or volunteering. Those things would be gone if they were to lose their independence.”

Are you willing to risk your independence over the flu?

Dr McElhaney explains: “Older people can lose up to 5% of their muscle strength every day they are in a hospital bed. They go into hospital independent and able to go out into the community. They come out and find they cannot do those things anymore.” If you are hospitalised because of the flu, you could become too weak to be able to walk. If that were to happen, you would lose the independence that allows you to enjoy life in the community.

Worse still, a hospital stay could mean you find yourself unable to care for yourself. Those basic activities that are part of all our daily lives could be lost. You might have trouble bathing independently, for instance.

In fact, a loss of independence can be catastrophic. As Dr Janet McElhaney reveals: “Our studies have shown that if you are admitted to hospital, you don’t just risk losing your ability to care for yourself; you’re also 40% more likely to lose your life in the year that follows.”

Maintaining your independence is about avoiding catching the flu or reducing the severity of the flu if you are unfortunate to catch it, thus limiting hospital admissions.

Exacerbating chronic conditions

The flu can also exacerbate any underlying conditions you may have, resulting in complications that might also impact your independence.

According to Dr McElhaney, around 50% of older people have two or more underlying chronic conditions such as cardiac or lung disease; around 25% have three or more.

If we look at chronic cardiac conditions, the flu could increase both your short- and long-term risk of heart attacks and strokes. “In older people with cardiac conditions, the body’s inflammatory response to the flu and decreased levels of activity increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Being left immobile then contributes to a long-term risk,” explains Dr McElhaney.

It’s not just that the flu can increase your risk of having a heart attack or stroke; it can also exacerbate any underlying chronic diseases, many of which are accompanied by low levels of inflammation. “The flu can contribute to something called ‘inflamm-aging’ by waking up the low-grade inflammation,” says Dr McElhaney. “This could potentially contribute to complications with those chronic diseases.”

Keeping the flu at bay

How can you ensure you do everything you can to avoid catching the flu?

Before we look at Dr Elhaney’s specific advice, we need to understand that no two seasons are the same when it comes to the flu. Different strains of the flu virus circulate each year and this influences who is affected.

“When we have H1N1 circulating, hospitalisation rates are really low, particularly in older people who may have protection because they were exposed to similar H1N1 strains in childhood,” reveals Dr McElhaney. “In years where we see H3N2 circulating, hospitalisation rates are very high.”

Bearing in mind that flu seasons vary considerably, what are Dr McElhaney’s tips for keeping safe no matter which strain of the flu is in circulation?

  1. Listen to your physician. Your doctor knows you, your underlying conditions and which flu strains are circulating the best. Beware of unreliable information circulating on the Internet; listen to the people who care for you instead.
  2.  Act now. The sooner you act on their advice, the better. Don’t sit and wait for novel prevention methods and treatments to become available. Start taking steps to keep yourself safe today.
  3. Encourage others. You are more likely to avoid the flu if those around you also take steps to keep the flu at bay. Talk to your family, your friends and the people who care for you. After all, if they have a strong immune system, they could catch the flu without getting any symptoms – then unwittingly pass it on to you.   

If you are older, the flu could take your independence away. Dr McElhaney’s advice can help you enjoy your life in the community for longer.


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