Dementia and the Flu

I’ve been hearing a lot of news coverage lately about the latest outbreak of the flu in many parts of the U.S.  I am dealing with some potentially serious health concerns myself at the moment, so I was concerned to hear about the death of at least one person here in southwest Ohio from the flu.  But I’ve also been thinking a lot about how this flu outbreak could affect the aging population, as well as those with dementia.  I’ve heard a number of experts state their opinions that these people, among others, are at particular risk of catching the flu and of having serious health complications from it.

In 2009, Elena Naumova, a professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, conducted a study in which she and her colleagues examined data related to persons 65 years of age and older.  They looked at five years’ worth of data, from 1998 to 2002, from the U.S. Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, including 36 million hospitalization records.  Over six million of these had a pneumonia and/or influenza diagnosis, with approximately 13 percent (more than 800,000) who had dementia.

Study results showed that seniors with dementia are less likely to be diagnosed with dementia, and had shorter hospital stays.  However, they were 50 percent more likely to die than those without dementia.  Researchers postulated that this indicated a deficiency in health-care quality and accessibility for this segment of the population.  They went on to speculate that those with dementia might have trouble communicating their symptoms to doctors or to others.  They also noted that pneumonia and influenza rates were higher among older adults in poor and rural areas, speaking to accessibility issues.

Based on my own knowledge of, and experience working with, persons who have dementia, I can propose some other factors that might influence how these individuals respond to the flu and its risk.  It’s not uncommon for persons with dementia, when they reach a certain stage of the disease, to experience increased difficulties from various health conditions (diabetes, heart problems, arthritis, etc.) because they forget to take their medications or have difficulty recognizing the symptoms and/or communicating them to others.  Sadly, residents of long-term care facilities can sometimes be at increased risk for catching the flu or other communicable diseases, no matter how clean the facilities and how diligent their staff may be.  When you have a large number of people wandering about the facility, or gathering in public areas (such as dining and activity rooms), there is going to be some exchange of germs even when precautions are taken against it.

One of the things we can get from this information is that we need to pay special attention to those with dementia among us, whenever we hear of an increase in cases of the flu or other communicable illnesses.  We should encourage them to speak to their personal physicians about being vaccinated, and also be on the lookout for possible symptoms that they may show.  Be sure that they get treatment when necessary, and that they keep up with any kind of medication regimens that have been prescribed.  These precautions apply not just to full-time caretakers, but to friends and neighbors.  And be sure to keep yourself in tip-top health, especially if you work with these or other persons who are at a higher risk for developing the flu.  Be aware that they can not only catch the flu from others, but can pass it along as well.

(Read the original story here.)

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