There are certain serious health conditions that we often associate with older adults. Heart disease and cancer are a few that top the list. One that may not seem as obvious has the potential to be just as life-threatening as others in the category.

Defined as a respiratory lung infection caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi, pneumonia hospitalizes approximately one million Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many are 65 years of age and older.

What is it, physiologically, that makes seniors more susceptible to pneumonia than other age groups? As we age, the efficacy of our immune system diminishes, and our body’s natural defenses become less reliable. This, in turn, makes us increasingly vulnerable to any illness, even if it’s relatively minor. As a result, something as common as a cold or mold spores in the home may lead to an infection of the lungs for seniors. Similarly, frailty — especially from ongoing recovery — can make it harder for seniors to cough and rid the lungs of certain infectious elements. Seniors may also be at greater risk if they have existing health conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), HIV, and heart disease.

Despite its commonality, pneumonia certainly doesn’t represent an inevitable aspect of aging. While there is no 100 percent guaranteed form of pneumonia prevention, there are steps seniors can take to reduce their overall risk. Doing so can help them continue to live life to the fullest — safely, healthily, and independently.

Reduce pneumonia risk

Get Vaccinated: Because pneumonia often appears in seniors who have the flu, getting vaccinated against influenza is recommended. Vaccine options include Fluzone High-Dose, Fluad and Flublok Quadrivalent. Seniors should talk to their physician about which is best. Additionally, to help guard against pneumonia, the CDC recommends that seniors get the two available vaccinations: PCV-13 (pneumococcal conjugate vaccine) and PPSV-23 (pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine). Seniors should get PCV-13 first, then follow up with PPSV-23 approximately a year later.

Prioritize Hygiene: It may seem like common sense, but simply washing our hands and using hand sanitizer can make a world of difference. Seniors should avoid germ-ridden surfaces (e.g., door handles, grocery cart handles) whenever possible, and keep their distance from any sick relatives or friends. As mentioned, it doesn’t take much for seniors to develop pneumonia, so even the smallest of hygienic best practices are worth following.

Don’t Smoke or Take Steps to Quit: Smoking negatively impacts just about everything in our bodies, but the lungs obviously receive a significant amount of damage. Those who smoke are at a greater overall risk of pneumonia because the lungs’ defense mechanisms often become compromised.

Practice a Healthy Lifestyle: Seniors should follow a physician-approved diet and exercise regimen. This will help bolster their immune system and reduce the risk of not only pneumonia, but a number of other health conditions.

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