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Age as a risk in the coronavirus pandemic

coronavirus risk for older people

The subject of risk is as confusing as anything else around the coronavirus. With new knowledge being gleaned every day, the advice given to the public can change as fast.

The risk we’re talking about here is not the likelihood of catching the disease, but the probability of being severely affected by it. All older people can be at risk, even if they are not in the “shielded” group that has been the focus of much attention.

Shielded people

There are a number of very high-risk groups, who are described as “shielded” or “extremely vulnerable”. The UK NHS says these include those who:

  • have had an organ transplant
  • are having certain types of cancer treatment
  • have blood or bone marrow cancer, such as leukaemia
  • have a severe lung condition, such as cystic fibrosis or severe asthma
  • have a condition or are taking medicine that makes them much more likely to get infections
  • are pregnant and have a serious heart condition

These individuals should have been contacted by the NHS, and will receive preferential help. If you think your parent should be on this list but has not been contacted, you are advised to speak to their GP or care team.

At risk but not shielded

Beyond the highest risk groups, there are many more individuals who are at risk of requiring hospitalisation and intensive care. It is these groups that are asked to be particularly careful about avoiding other people. The recommendation is that they continue the self-distancing procedures for 12 weeks. The aim is to reduce the pressure on hospitals right now, so that they are better able to cope with new cases into the future.

So who is at risk?

UK view on risk factors

The UK NHS states that people at higher risk include those who are 70 or over, and those with conditions that include:

  • lung conditions, such as asthma, COPD, emphysema or bronchitis
  • heart disease, such as heart failure
  • chronic kidney disease
  • liver disease, such as hepatitis
  • conditions affecting the brain and nerves, such as Parkinson’s disease, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), a learning disability or cerebral palsy
  • diabetes
  • problems with your spleen – for example, sickle cell disease, or if you’ve had your spleen removed
  • a weakened immune system as the result of conditions such as HIV and AIDS, or medicines such as steroid tablets or chemotherapy
  • being very overweight (having a BMI of 40 or above)

World Health Organisation view

According to the World Health Organisation’s advice at the end of last year, “People of all ages can be infected by the new coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Older people, and people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease) appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus”.

US view

As with any discussion around the virus at the moment, there are no definitive answers. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those at high risk for severe illness are:

  • People aged 65 years and older
  • People who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility. (This is a subject that is now coming under scrutiny in the UK.)

At the beginning of April the headline in some UK papers was that age and weight are the biggest risk factors. According to a study by the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, age and chronic illness, especially cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity were key factors for people needing hospital treatment.

Advice on avoiding the virus for now

The NHS suggests anyone at risk should follow these recommendations for at least 12 weeks:

  • stay at home at all times – do not leave your home to buy food, collect medicine or exercise
  • stay at least 2 metres (3 steps) away from other people in your home as much as possible
  • get food and medicine delivered and left outside your door – ask friends and family to help or register at GOV.UK to get coronavirus support if you need it
  • prepare a hospital bag, including a list of the medicines you’re taking, in case you need to go into hospital
  • wash your hands with soap and water often – do this for at least 20 seconds
  • make sure anyone who comes into your home washes their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds
  • use hand sanitiser gel if soap and water are not available
  • clean objects and surfaces you touch often (like door handles, kettles and phones) using your regular cleaning products
  • clean a shared bathroom each time you use it, for example by wiping the surfaces you have touched

For other useful information about life for older people during the coronavirus pandemic, visit https://whentheygetolder.co.uk/category/health/coronavirus-covid-19/


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