Sepsis and Aging
Sepsis can strike anyone at any time, but some segments of the population are more at risk that others. Older people, defined as those over the age of 65, are 13 times more likely to develop sepsis than younger people. Mortality rates are also higher in older patients – sepsis is the tenth leading cause of death for those aged 65 and over – and increase with advanced age. Despite these statistics, sepsis does not receive the same level as attention as other diseases that are often fatal in the elderly, such as cancer and heart failure.
Why are older people more susceptible to sepsis?
Aging immune systems and frailer bodies make older people more vulnerable to sepsis.
Older people are more likely to experience extended hospital stays, surgeries, and the insertion of medical devices such as catheters, feed tubes and IV’s which all increase the likelihood of infection and sepsis.
Chronic diseases such as diabetes, lung and kidney disease, stroke, heart attack and hypertension have also been shown to significantly increase the patient’s risk of developing sepsis.
What is the long term impact of sepsis on older patients?
Research shows that elderly patients are much more likely to suffer lasting consequences from sepsis. In addition to amputation and organ failure, which are common outcomes for any sepsis survivor, older patients can suffer major cognitive and physical limitations as a result of the disease.
A recent University of Michigan study showed that 60 percent of seniors who were hospitalized for severe sepsis experienced significant declines in physical or mental ability (sometimes both) even after they recovered from the infection. More than 40% of sepsis patients who had no limitations before sepsis developed difficulty walking and many patients experienced new difficulties in basic self-care, including bathing, shopping and cooking.
The study also found that elderly people had a threefold increase in life-altering cognitive declines after surviving sepsis while study participants with no history of sepsis showed no increase in risk over the course of the study. The study projected that 20,000 new cases of dementia among people aged 65 or older each year in the United States can be directly attributed to sepsis.
How can older people be protected against sepsis?
One of the best ways to guard against sepsis in vulnerable populations is to vaccinate against diseases like flu and pneumonia. These relatively common diseases can have serious repercussion for those with aging immune systems.
The elderly and their caregivers should also familiarize themselves with the signs of sepsis and not be afraid to ask the doctor if they are concerned about sepsis.
In elderly people especially, confusion and tiredness is a major sign that medical attention is needed. Other signs are similar to those found in adult sepsis sufferers and include:
- Fever and chills
- Rapid breathing
- Mottled or dusky skin
- Elevated heart rate
- Pain and physical discomfort