Nearly 322,000 people have contracted coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China. So far, there have been 13,746 deaths. The fatality rate is likely to be higher in older adults.
How It’s Affecting Seniors
While it’s not surprising, it demonstrates the need for innovative treatments that address this population. As the proportion of adults over 50 continues to rise worldwide, potential pandemics could be more dangerous than they have been in the past.
During the original SARS outbreak the fatality rate was 10%,but that jumped to 50% in people over the age of 50. There was a similar pattern of fatalities with MERS in 2015.
What Are These Viruses
SARS and MERS fall within the category of coronaviruses, which get their names from the spiky crown of proteins on the viruses’ outer shell. So while we don’t have a firm fatality rate for older adults, it’s likely that it’ll also be higher than in younger adults.
There are two reasons older adults are more susceptible to infections. First, seniors are more likely to have other chronic health conditions, like diabetes or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, that make it harder for their bodies to cope with damage caused by a new pathogen. Every year, the majority of flu deaths are seen in people 65 or older.
Immune System Changes With Age
Second, the immune system changes with age, particularly in its ability to respond to coronaviruses. Unlike the flu virus, which does most of the damage to your body on its own, most of the symptoms from coronavirus infections actually come from the body’s immune response. Coronaviruses encourage older immune systems to kick in with extra inflammation, which can have a cascading effect.
These downstream effects can be particularly acute when the virus lives and reproduces exclusively in a vital organ like the lungs—which SARS and MERS. In an effort to control the infection, the body will wall off portions of the lung that are harboring most of the infection. These sections are then not available to take in oxygen. You can still breathe, but not with the same capacity. If you have COPD and heart disease, you have less capacity to begin with, which ultimately makes the infection more likely to be fatal.
Difference Between Seniors and Children
Unlike the flu, which has higher fatality rates in both young children and older adults, coronaviruses tend to only be more dangerous for seniors. This doesn’t mean that children are immune to the virus, but they may be better at fighting it off if they’re otherwise healthy.
As people live to older ages and constitute a bigger part of the global population, we’ll need better health interventions to protect them specifically. This will be a unique challenge for scientists developing vaccines and treatments for coronavirus. it’s hard to model aging because animals like mice don’t age the same way that humans do.
Right now, it’s critical that scientists develop treatments appropriate for older adults affected by coronavirus, who are at the highest risk of complications. But seniors will have to be at the front of public health officials’ minds as they prepare for future pandemics, too. The more humans press into animal territory through farming, urbanization, and deforestation, the more likely it is that a virus.
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