What Is the Link Between Baby Boomers and Sepsis?

Age and chronic conditions increase your risks

What Is the Link Between Baby Boomers and Sepsis?

Our bodies spend a lot of time dealing with infection. When you get an infection, a healthy, active immune system works to fight it off.  But what happens when your immune system is not sufficient to fight it off alone? The infection can progress to a more advanced stage known as sepsis.

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Sepsis, or inflammation resulting from the body’s fight against infection, is more prevalent in older adults. One reason is that your immune system weakens as you age. Fewer than 15 percent of Americans are older than 65, but that age group makes up 65 percent of sepsis cases, says Duncan Hite, MD, Director of Research, Department of Critical Care Medicine.

Here’s what you need to know about sepsis:

How does sepsis work?

When your body has a severe infection, your immune system kicks in to fight it. It releases chemicals that cause inflammation and low blood pressure (hypotension).   If you are sick enough, this inflammation and hypotension can cause damage to organs including the brain, lungs and kidneys.

Sepsis is a very serious condition, so it’s important to get help quickly if it sets in.

It is considered “severe” when it advances enough to cause failure of vital organs (lungs, kidneys, brain, etc). The most severe form of sepsis is called septic shock, and occurs when a patient’s blood pressure becomes low (hypotension) and they need medication to maintain adequate blood flow.  Patients with severe sepsis and septic shock typically need to be taken care of in an intensive care unit (ICU).

Who gets sepsis?

Sepsis can occur any time a severe infection is present.

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Although an infection can progress enough to cause sepsis in anyone, including people with normal immune systems, it is more likely in those with compromised immune systems.   In young people, compromised immune systems are most often seen in:

  • Pregnant women
  • People with HIV
  • Individuals taking chemotherapy for cancer

However, of all cases of sepsis in the U.S. each year, far more are seen in older people. “Age alone is a risk factor,” says Dr. Hite.

Why is age such a factor?

According to Dr. Hite, “a person’s immune system as they get older is not as complete or as vigorous as when they are younger.”

Aside from simply having a weaker immune system, sepsis is more common as people age for a handful of reasons.

Dr. Hite says the biggest factor is the increase in chronic conditions effecting vital organs. When these patients get infections their bodies are unable to fight them off because of these multiple issues. Examples include:

  • A person with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) can’t clear their lungs effectively, making bacteria more likely to settle and cause pneumonia.
  • People with bladder problems are more likely to have a urinary tract infection.
  • Foot wounds may not heal effectively for a person with diabetes who has poor circulation.
  • A cancer patient on chemotherapy has periods where their immune function is very low, making them more prone to infections.

“Infections in these patients can develop and progress rapidly because weaker immune forces are working to hold it back and organs that are failing from chronic medical problems are less able to tolerate the challenge of an acute infection,” Dr. Hite said.

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What are the signs of sepsis?

Sepsis is sometimes a very serious condition, but your doctor can treat it with antibiotics and fluids. If it isn’t caught quickly, however, it can affect how multiple organs function. If you have organ problems before you get sepsis, the risk of infection and severity of organ damage increases.

Symptoms vary from person to person, but there are a few telltale signs that are consistent with sepsis. Watch out if someone with a fever also has the following symptoms:

  • Confusion or dizziness
  • New or worsening shortness of breath
  • Reduced amount of urine or dark colored urine
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Blood pressure that is lower than usual

Can you avoid sepsis?

The only way to avoid sepsis is to steer clear of infections. The best way to do this, particularly for older people is to:

  • Get annual flu and pneumonia vaccines
  • Clean wounds and scratches thoroughly
  • Wash hands frequently and bathe regularly
  • Keep a close watch on your blood glucose levels if you have diabetes

Once infection has advanced to a stage including sepsis, delays in treatment become very important to avoid.   “Every hour that passes risk increases dramatically, so knowing symptoms and getting help immediately is crucial,” said Dr. Hite.

If you think you or a loved one has an infection and signs of sepsis, the goal is to seek medical assistance immediately by calling 911 or going to the emergency room.

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