Each year, about one-third of adults 65 and over don’t get an influenza vaccine. It’s a troubling statistic, says Gregory Poland, M.D., an infectious disease expert and director of the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group: “If someone asked me, ‘What could I do that would increase the chances that I would not live through Christmas?’ I’d say, ‘Don’t wear your seat belt, don’t get a flu vaccine, and ignore the COVID recommendations.’”
Indeed, an annual flu vaccine is crucial. “We need it annually because the [virus] strains are slightly different each year,” says Kristin Christensen, M.D., an internal medicine specialist affiliated with Penn Medicine, in Philadelphia. Researchers try to predict what will be the most prevalent strains in any given flu season and update the vaccine accordingly; this year, every vaccine that’s available will protect against four strains of influenza.
The vaccination is especially important for older adults, whose immune systems naturally weaken with age. This puts them at high risk of developing serious complications from flu, particularly pneumonia, which can be life-threatening. According to the CDC, in recent years about 70 to 85 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths have occurred in people 65 years and older, and 50 to 70 percent of hospitalizations have occurred among those in this age group.
What’s more, says Poland, “An older person hospitalized with influenza runs about a 12-fold increased risk of heart attack and about a sixfold increased risk for stroke,” since flu increases the risk of these cardiovascular events.
The particularly severe 2017-2018 flu season resulted in 810,000 hospitalizations and 61,000 deaths in the U.S. Sixty-seven percent of hospitalizations occurred in people age 65 and older that season; they also accounted for 83 percent of deaths.
Last flu season, of course, was different. Rates of influenza during the 2020-2021 season were significantly lower than usual. For one thing, COVID-19 precautions — such as masks and social distancing, working from home, and reduced international travel — meant fewer opportunities for the flu to spread.
Now that people are returning to a more “normal” life — ditching their masks, returning to offices and schools, gathering at sporting events, hopping on planes — health care experts warn that the virus could very well return to pre-pandemic levels.