Dr. Shelley Deeks
Chief – Communicable Diseases, Emergency Preparedness & Response at Public Health Ontario
Dr. Samir Sinha
Director of Geriatrics, Sinai Health System
Dr. Janet McElhaney
Vice President – Research & Scientific Director, Health Sciences North Research Institute
A beloved grandmother’s seat at the dinner table is empty. A few weeks ago, she suddenly took ill, went to the hospital, and died. The family had no idea that grandma had pneumonia, a preventable illness.
Pneumonia is a serious infection of the lungs. It can be either bacterial — like pneumococcal pneumonia, caused by the pneumococcus bacterium — or viral, caused by viruses like the flu. Symptoms include fever, chest pain, coughing, and difficulty breathing. In vulnerable populations like the elderly, risk of fatality is a serious reality.
Increased age, increased risk
Pneumonia is among the top 10 killers in Canada, especially among older Canadians. According to a recent report by the National Institute on Ageing (NIA) at Ryerson University, more than 6,000 Canadians die each year from pneumonia. 87% of those are over age 65.
Health care providers are raising public awareness of how the risk of contracting and succumbing to pneumonia increases with age. “People tend to think about when they had pneumonia at a younger age and recovered with a single round of antibiotics, so it doesn’t seem so serious,” says Dr. Samir Sinha, Director of Geriatrics at Sinai Health System. But in the elderly and other at-risk groups like those with multiple chronic conditions, immunocompromised people, young children, and pregnant women, an infection can cause serious complications.
Further complicating matters is the fact that seniors don’t always present with classic symptoms like fever or cough. “Instead, they might develop delirium or acute confusion, where it would be impossible for them to recognize and understand their symptoms, let alone report them to someone and get immediate medical attention,” says Dr. Janet McElhaney, Vice President of Research and Scientific Director of the Health Sciences North Research Institute.
People tend to think about when they had pneumonia at a younger age and recovered with a single round of antibiotics, so it doesn’t seem so serious.Dr. Samir Sinha, Sinai Health System
Even if death is not the outcome, the burden of pneumonia is heavy in other ways. Seniors may experience serious functional declines and a loss of independence following a pneumonia hospitalization. “They may no longer be able to walk up and down stairs or do basic tasks like dressing and bathing, and may now require assisted living arrangements, either in the home or in a care facility,” says Dr. Sinha.
A bout of pneumonia can also aggravate existing medical conditions, lead to new ones like stroke, heart attack, or heart failure, and increase the risk of a future hospital admission from a pneumonia recurrence. “With the increased frailty as a complication of that initial pneumonia, you have an even higher risk of a poor outcome the next time you come in with pneumonia,” says Dr. McElhaney.
Prevention is the best course of action
As the population ages, more Canadians are at risk of pneumonia. Fortunately, there are vaccines available to help protect against pneumococcal pneumonia, while the flu shot offers significant protection against viral pneumonia caused by influenza. And while there are no guarantees that a vaccine will be 100% effective, “even if you do get infected, you’ll likely have a less severe illness and be less likely to be hospitalized, get other serious complications, or become disabled from a severe form of the illness,” says Dr. McElhaney.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommends two pneumococcal vaccines for adults over the age of 65.
Seniors are advised to speak with their doctors or pharmacists to find out their vaccine eligibility and options. “It’s important that people talk to their health care providers about the vaccines they need to protect themselves against these serious diseases,” says Dr. Shelley Deeks, Chief of Communicable Diseases and Emergency Preparedness and Response at Public Health Ontario.
Though pneumonia may lack the impassioned awareness campaigns of diseases like cancer, it has no less ability to rob us of our loved ones. “If there’s something we can do to prevent it, then why aren’t we doing it?” says Dr. Sinha.
This article was made possible with support from a leading biopharmaceutical company.