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Understanding Pneumonia: Could Your Age Put You at Risk?

Four seniors enjoying a hike on the beach
Four seniors enjoying a hike on the beach

Bev Black

Pneumonia Survivor

Dr. Samir Sinha

Director of Geriatrics, Sinai Health System

Michael Boivin

Clinical Pharmacist Consultant

Pneumonia is a disease that everyone is aware of, but few know just how serious it can be. Those who do understand best, unfortunately, are those who have lived through it personally and those who have lost loved ones to it. Considering that together with influenza, pneumonia is one of the top ten causes of death in Canada, we talk about it far too rarely.

Bev Black of St. Catharines, Ontario is eager to talk about it. In 2009, Bev caught pneumonia and ended up on life support in the hospital’s intensive care unit. “I went down to 72 pounds and I almost completely lost my muscle tone,” she recalls. “In total I was in the hospital for nearly seven weeks. It took me a good two or three months to get most of the way back to normal, and some of the strength that I had before I got sick was just gone for good.”

Surviving pneumonia, as Bev’s story illustrates, does not necessarily mean coming out unscathed. Studies show that some people struggle with the after-effects of hospitalizations for pneumonia for a long time. “When you get an illness like influenza or pneumonia that knocks you off your feet, there are a lot of risks associated with being in a hospital bed,” explains Dr. Samir Sinha, Director of Geriatrics for the Sinai Health System and the University Health Network in Toronto. “For every day of bedrest, older people with diminished capacity can risk losing up to 5% of their functioning. And some patients may never recover the function they lose, threatening their ability to live independently.”

When we talk about pneumonia, we also need to talk about flu, because they typically run hand in hand.

Michael Boivin, pharmacist and educator.

Flu season and vaccine prevention 

Aging gracefully requires attention to prevention — what makes pneumonia and influenza unique among common causes of death in Canada such as cancerous tumours, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s disease, is that they can be vaccine-preventable. Michael Boivin is a pharmacist who worked in primary care for seventeen years and is now an educator focusing on a variety of health care topics, including vaccines. Based on research and professional experience, he champions vaccination to protect against pneumococcal pneumonia, influenza, and other vaccine-preventable diseases. 

“When we talk about pneumonia, we also need to talk about flu, because they typically run hand in hand,” says Boivin. “The same people are at risk for both. For many people, the key is to get immunized against the flu and also against pneumococcal pneumonia.”

Older age and chronic diseases increase the risk

As we age, our immune system gradually weakens, putting us at greater risk of infections like pneumonia even if we still feel healthy. People with chronic health conditions like COPD, diabetes, and heart disease are also at elevated risk. And these risk factors often overlap. For those managing multiple health issues, it’s too easy for the vaccine discussion to fall down the priority list and be missed in regular conversation with their physicians, nurses, and pharmacists. 

“I’m a big proponent of people taking control of their own health,” says Boivin. “So, I encourage everyone with chronic disease, everyone over the age of 65, or anyone who is simply worried about pneumonia or influenza to talk to their physician or pharmacist. There are strategies we can use to reduce the overall risk. Just start the conversation.”

Today, Bev is a lung health ambassador for St. Catharines’ Niagara Health System, where she works passionately to encourage others to get that conversation going. “I find that people are a lot more receptive to the message when they talk to somebody like me who has walked that path,” she says. “If I can save just one person from going through what I went through, then all the work is worth it.”

Vaccination does not protect 100% of those immunized and cannot prevent complications, hospitalization, or death after the onset of disease. Side effects and allergic reactions can occur.

This article was made possible with support from Pfizer Canada.

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