People over 60, and especially over 80, are particularly vulnerable to severe or fatal infection.

Of the confirmed cases in China to date, nearly 15% of patients over 80 have died. For those under 50, the death rate was well below 1%.

Medical experts say that if people over 60 are infected, they are more likely to have severe, life-threatening disease, even if their general health is good. Older people with underlying medical conditions are at particularly high risk. Experts attribute some of the risk to a weakening of the immune system with age.

People are wrong to assume that if an underlying condition is well managed with treatment, they’re out of danger. Even those with conditions that are stable should take extra precautions.

Here are some tips to reduce risk for older people.


Geriatricians recommend patients adhere to current recommendations from the CDC and WHO:

• Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water for 20 seconds (the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice) or clean them with alcohol-based hand gel.

• Avoid handshakes.

• Stay away from large gatherings.

• Clean and disinfect objects that are touched frequently.

• Avoid public transportation and crowds.

• Stock up on supplies.

• No cruises or nonessential travel.

• Visits with grandchildren are ill-advised.


Some experts are recommending that older adults at risk cancel nonessential doctor’s appointments, including wellness visits. Tele-medicine sessions, if available, are often a reasonable substitute.

Another helpful step: talking to your doctor about stockpiling two or three months of any critical prescription medicines.


Experts warn that social distancing, the cornerstone of epidemic control, could lead to social isolation, already a problem in the older population that can result in health hazards.

Doctors suggest doing virtual meetings with friends and relatives, with the benefits of social engagement in mind. Don’t cancel these things, but change to Zoom or Skype or FaceTime.


The National Association for Home Care & Hospice estimates that 12 million “vulnerable persons of all ages” in the U.S. receive care in their homes, delivered by a home care work force of about 2.2 million people. For many older adults, that means a steady parade of home health aides trooping through the door, some more mindful of hygiene than others.

People should have conversations with their caregivers about hygiene, doctors say. Double-check that aides are washing their hands or using hand gel. Any equipment they bring in should be wiped down with disinfectant. And make sure they are feeling healthy.


Some 1.7 million people, mostly older, are in nursing homes in the U.S., a fraction of the 50 million Americans over age 65.

Given the rash of deaths at a nursing home in Kirkland, Wash., hit hard by the virus, nursing homes are on high alert. Many have gone into full lockdown mode.

The federal government is telling nursing homes to bar all visitors, making exceptions only “for compassionate care, such as end-of-life situations.”


Geriatricians fear that social distancing may affect routines in ways that can compromise the vitality of older adults. They emphasize the importance of maintaining good habits, including sufficient sleep, healthful eating and exercise.

Exercise may be beneficial in fighting the effects of coronavirus. It can help boost the body’s immune functions, decrease inflammation and have mental and emotional benefits. A patient who relies on daily exercise at the gym but is trying to avoid risky situations might simply go for a walk.

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