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.
The current preliminary fatality rate for 2019-nCoV hovers around 3%—which is low, but still concerning because of the number of cases accumulating. But that fatality rate is likely to be higher in older adults.
Unofficial open-source data from researchers based in the UK and China show that out of 41 deaths, 39 were in people over 50.
The data indicates the need for effective therapies targeted at this population. And as the proportion of adults over 50 continues to increase globally, future pandemics could be deadlier than they’ve been in the past.
There are two reasons older adults are more susceptible to infections.
First, seniors are more likely to have other chronic health conditions, like diabetes or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, that make it harder for their bodies to cope with damage caused by a new pathogen. Every year, the majority of flu deaths are seen in people 65 or older.
Second, the immune system changes with age—particularly in its ability to respond to coronaviruses. Unlike the flu virus, which does most of the damage to your body on its own, most of the symptoms from coronavirus infections actually come from the body’s immune response.
As people live to older ages and constitute a bigger part of the global population, we’ll need better health interventions to protect them specifically.
This will be a unique challenge for scientists developing vaccines and treatments for 2019-nCoV; it’s hard to model aging because animals like mice don’t age the same way that humans do.
Right now, it’s critical that scientists develop treatments appropriate for older adults affected by 2019-nCoV, who are at the highest risk of complications.
WHO advises people of all ages to take steps to protect themselves from the virus, for example by following good hand hygiene and good respiratory hygiene.