The two fastest-growing segments of our population - 80 to 90-year-olds and those who are over 100 - are facing a dilemma. Healthcare professionals often treat these Americans the same as those over the age of 65, a population demonstrating over 40 years of age-related diversity.
University of California San Francisco geriatrics professor Louise Aronson’s article, “Stop Treating 70- and 90- Year-Olds the Same,” draws much-needed attention to the problem confronting our nation’s oldest citizens. By confining all Americans over age 65 into one group, healthcare professionals dismiss the physical and behavioral changes that accompany older people in the last half-century of life. This geriatric generalization increases the potential for medical mistakes ranging from incorrect vaccination to prescribing treatments that cause more harm than benefit.
As the body ages, the immune system weakens significantly. Older adults become exposed to the burdens of infectious and chronic diseases with increasing frequency, meaning more sickness, more hospital visits, and perhaps more death. Additionally, as we age, our bodies begin to stop producing effective antibodies to diseases like tetanus and diphtheria. Many of the 47 million Americans over 65, therefore, may be incorrectly vaccinated. Just as children have different vaccination requirements at various developmental stages, older adults should receive different dosages or formulas as they age. Aronson notes that the risk to benefit ratio for many treatments increases dramatically throughout “oldhood.” Beyond a more compromised immune system, our oldest citizens also typically have different healthcare and lifestyle priorities that should be recognized.
Aronson offers two strategies to take better care of our elderly. The first would have the CDC modify its vaccine recommendations to caution against the simple binary of childhood and adulthood. The second asks the NIH to ensure older adults are included in clinical studies so that research takes into account the complexity of aging bodies.