Pneumonia is among the top 10 causes of death in the US. Older adults and people with coexisting diseases are at highest risk of dying from pneumonia. And some research suggests that the rates of hospitalization for pneumonia may be increasing, particularly among people aged 65 and older.

A new study in the December 7, 2005 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that over the past 15 years, hospitalizations for pneumonia have increased by approximately 20% in people aged 65-84.

About the Study

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined approximately 270,000 hospitalization records from 500 hospitals. The researchers studied pneumonia hospitalization trends, including the presence of coexisting conditions (e.g., heart disease , lung disease, diabetes ), in people aged 65 and older. They looked at data from 1988-1990 and 2000-2002.

Over the 15-year study period, hospitalization rates increased by approximately 20% in people aged 65-84. Hospitalization rates did not change in people aged 85 and older. People in this age group, however, were 2-4 times as likely to be hospitalized for pneumonia than those aged 65-84.

Most people in the study had at least one coexisting condition, with heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes being the three most commonly reported conditions. The number of people with at least one of these three conditions increased from 66% to 77% over the 15-year study period.

This study is limited because it is possible that better documentation of medical conditions, rather than an actual increase in the number of new cases, may have led to an apparent increase in the rate of coexisting conditions.

How Does This Affect You?

These findings indicate that pneumonia is an increasing problem in older adults. And the presence of coexisting conditions—particularly heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes—may be a contributing factor to the increasing hospitalization rates. This is a significant problem, especially considering the rapidly growing population of older adults in the US.

How can older people avoid pneumonia and its complications? Currently, the best strategy is to avoid smoking, treat coexisting conditions, eat healthfully, and have preventative vaccines. It is recommended that everyone aged 65 and older (and younger people at increased risk) have a pneumococcal vaccine, which can reduce the incidence of pneumonia by 44% to 75%. Annual influenza vaccinations can also help prevent pneumonia, since the influenza often precedes pneumonia.