Aging brings a bunch of changes to your body, both physically and mentally. To keep up with those changes, your medical needs shift as you get older.
“Our immune system changes as we get older, and it starts … sooner than you would think, sort of in our 50s is when it starts … and then it peaks by the age of 80,” said Dr. Ardeshir Hashmi, section chief of the center for geriatric medicine at Cleveland Clinic.
Within that three-decade period, our body is impacted by immunosenescence, which is the worsening of our immune response, Hashmi noted. So, as we age, we become more susceptible to infections, he said. This means it’s important to be protected against viruses that can be avoided. One way to do that is through vaccination.
Which shots do you need if you fall in this category? Below, experts share what vaccines you should consider getting if you’re over the age of 50.
The Shingles Vaccine
“The first vaccine that comes to mind when people reach age 50 is the vaccine against shingles,” said Dr. Julie Thai, a geriatrician at the senior care clinic at Stanford University.
Shingrix is a two-dose vaccine that protects against shingles and is the new, more effective formulation of the vaccine, according to Thai. The old vaccine, Zostavax, is no longer available or recommended in the U.S. If you’ve only had the Zostavax shingles vaccine, you should get the new shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Thai said most of her patients have had the vaccine, but for those who don’t remember if they’ve been vaccinated (or if they’ve had the old formulation), she tells them to get the Shingrix shot.
“That’s really important because shingles is painful and it’s one of those infections that just has these long-term effects,” Thai explained. “People have this neuropathic pain that can last for years … if they don’t get treated early enough in the disease course.”
Hashmi added that while both people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated can get the rash, it’s only the unvaccinated folks who would have this ongoing neuropathic, burning pain.
The Pneumococcal Vaccine
The pneumococcal vaccine is important for people 65 and older, Thai said. “It will protect them against severe cases of pneumonia.”
Additionally, the vaccine is recommended for younger people who are at high risk for severe pneumonia because of chronic illnesses like diabetes, Thai added. So, you can check with your doctor if you’re under 65 but concerned about your pneumonia risk because of preexisting conditions.
A Tdap Vaccine
“The one that really comes to mind to me is tetanus, so the tetanus-diphtheria booster … if you look at data, it’s really actually people who are over 50 ― especially women ― who have low immunity to tetanus and diphtheria,” said Dr. Trish Perl, a professor in the department of internal medicine who specializes in infectious diseases at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
To account for this, you can get the Tdap vaccine, which also targets pertussis, she said. “That is especially important for people who are going to be around young children — like grandparents — because pertussis is a big problem in younger children, but it’s actually adults who … are the ones who will be transmitting pertussis,” Perl stated.
For the Tdap shot, “everyone requires a booster every 10 years. And this one, I feel people don’t take that seriously,” Thai said.
The COVID-19 Vaccine
The COVID-19 vaccine is the newest necessary vaccine for folks, according to Hashmi.
Older people have a higher chance of getting very sick from COVID-19 if they’re unvaccinated, resulting in severe outcomes like hospitalization or death, according to the CDC. And if you are older and have underlying conditions, like heart disease or diabetes, you’re even more at risk.
People who are 50 and up are eligible to get the updated bivalent vaccine and can get boosted if it’s been at least four months since their last shot, according to the CDC.
The Flu Shot
The flu shot is important for everyone, not just for folks over 50. In fact, the CDC says everyone 6 months and up should get this shot each season.
“I always advise people to get vaccinated against seasonal flu because it really can put you out … especially now coupled with COVID,” Thai said. “I think people sometimes are dismissive of it, but it is really important that at any age to get the influenza vaccine.”
Hashmi added that the illnesses that have a lot of inflammation involved — like the flu, COVID, shingles and pneumonia — are worse in older patients.
“Because if you get the illness, the response to it is not robust because our natural immunity has gone down,” Hashmi said. “So, unless you supplement that with these vaccines, not only will the diseases happen … they will happen with much more severity than if you were, let’s say, a young adult or someone between age 20 and age 50.”
The Hepatitis B Vaccine
“If you have certain risk factors, some of our seniors also merit the Hepatitis B vaccine,” Hashmi said. Those risk factors include intravenous drug use at any point and people who are incarcerated.
The vaccine is also available to people with certain health conditions. “Hepatitis B is important. It’s usually people who are immunocompromised … or who are older than 60 is usually when we start recommending it,” Thai noted.
If you are an avid international traveler, you may need additional vaccinations.
“I do think a lot of people at this age group also travel and so that may be another twist,” Perl said.
According to Perl, your vaccine needs will differ depending on what countries you visit. She recommends the Hepatitis A vaccine for people who travel, particularly if you eat street food and aren’t checking whether something is cooked all the way through, “because you can get pretty sick from Hepatitis A and especially you don’t want to get sick if you’re traveling.”
For other kinds of travel, recommended vaccines may include the meningococcal vaccine, polio vaccine, rabies and yellow fever, she said. To figure out what vaccines you may need for upcoming trips, talk to your primary care doctor. Your physician should be able to vaccinate you or refer you to a travel medicine center.
Talk to your doctor about what vaccines are right for you.
Vaccine needs vary from person to person — and some people may require more information before going through with the jab. Talk to your doctor about what vaccines you need to stay protected well past your middle-age years.
“I think it’s important for every patient to sit with their doctors and ask questions and, you know, make an informed decision based on what answers they get,” Thai said.
She added that your physician can help explain the science behind some of these vaccines, address your concerns and help debunk any myths.
“Most of these vaccines have been around for years and years and years and are well studied, or the technology behind them is well studied,” Perl noted. “They’re actually much safer than getting these underlying diseases.”
And if you are vaccinated but still end up getting sick, you’ll be better off.
“It’s not like you are never going to get these illnesses. You could still get them. However, you will get a much milder version of any of these illnesses,” Hashmi explained.
These vaccines can help you live a fuller life, too. “People are living longer, they’re living better [and] the quality of life is also improved if you’ve stayed up to date with these vaccines,” Hashmi said.