It’s that time of year again: flu season. You’ve likely heard that our risk of developing complications from the flu increases as we get older. That’s in large part because our ability to fight off illnesses weakens as we age, as does our ability to build up antibodies after receiving a vaccine.
All this adds up to the flu taking an especially tough toll on older adults. Each year, up to 85 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths occur in people 65 years and older. During the 2015-2016 flu season, 153,000 older adults wound up in the hospital after a bout with the flu, and sadly, some 7,600 died from pneumonia and influenza-related illness.i
These numbers drive home the importance of the flu shot for older adults. Contrary to the old wives’ tale, it’s impossible to get the flu from the flu shot. And even in years when the vaccine isn’t perfectly matched to the circulating strains, it still offers protection that can make a major difference in the severity of your symptoms. So it’s best to follow health experts’ advice and dutifully get your flu shot each fall.
If you’re over 65, a minor adjustment in your approach to this annual precautionary health step could offer even greater protection from the flu. And no, it doesn’t require you to get extra shots. All you have to do is talk to your doctor about Fluzone when you show up for your flu shot appointment.
Fluzone is a high-dose flu vaccine that’s formulated to counter the factors that put older adults at greater risk from the flu. Offered in a single-dose shot, it’s designed especially for adults 65 years and older.ii The formula contains four times the amount of antigen – the part of the vaccine that triggers an immune response – and just like the standard flu vaccine, it’s made to protect against the flu strains most likely to cause illness that year.iii
Fluzone has been in use since it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2009 and has been shown to illicit a stronger immune response than the standard flu vaccine.iv,v
Making this simple switch from the standard flu shot to Fluzone could have a big impact on your health. A recent study showed the high-dose flu vaccine did a better job of preventing flu-related deaths and hospitalizations in seniors during a bad flu season.
In a study of more than 1 million Medicare recipients 65 years of age and older, seniors who received the high-dose vaccine but still contracted the flu and landed in the hospital or emergency room were 36 percent less likely to die in the 30 days following the hospitalization, compared to those who received the standard-dose vaccine.
The study, published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases, was conducted initially during the 2012-2013 flu season when the H3N2 virus – one of the stronger strains of the flu – was predominant. Interestingly, the same study conducted the following year, when HIN1 was the dominant strain, showed that the high-dose vaccine was not significantly better at preventing deaths. Nevertheless, since infectious disease experts can’t predict with 100-percent certainty which strains will be most active in a given flu season, health experts suggest that the high-dose vaccine may be the better option.
The high-dose flu vaccine has also proved to be beneficial for some of the most vulnerable seniors – nursing home residents. In a 2017 study of 38,000 nursing home residents across the U.S., those given the high-dose vaccine were 12.7 percent less likely to be hospitalized for respiratory illness compared to residents receiving the standard-dose shot.vii
The Bottom Line
Switching from the standard flu shot to Fluzone seems like a no-brainer, but it’s best to discuss your options with your doctor and follow his or her recommendations. Regardless of the type of flu vaccine you choose this year, remember that it takes about two weeks for protection to kick in, so it’s best to get the vaccine in the fall before flu season peaks between December and February.viii
Plans are insured through UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company or one of its affiliated companies. For Medicare Advantage and Prescription Drug Plans: A Medicare Advantage organization with a Medicare contract and a Medicare-approved Part D sponsor. Enrollment in these plans depends on the plan’s contract renewal with Medicare.