How Parasitic Infections Prey On The Elderly

Effects of parasites on the elderly

Parasites are organisms that feed off a live host, and for those that infect humans, they commonly take the form of flatworms and roundworms found in contaminated meat, water, and soil. Our post The Health Impacts of Parasitic Worms mentions that symptoms of an infection include nausea, vomiting, dehydration, and fever. These are unpleasant and harmful effects for people of all ages, but especially vulnerable populations like the elderly.

A post by Maryville University on hospice and palliative care highlighted that the number of seniors in the US is growing rapidly, along with the demand for elderly care professionals. There are 52 million people over 65 years old in the country, and this number is expected to nearly double to 95 million by 2060. These seniors have specific needs, and elder care professionals must train to treat clients for all conditions as they age, including parasites. Experiencing poor health from parasitic infection can further decline the conditions of older people, which is why they need the best care available. Here are some ways a parasitic infection could negatively impact an older adult’s quality of life:

Increased dependence

Older people begin to rely more on family members, caregivers, or nurses to assist them with daily tasks since their bodily functions and systems weaken as they age. Maintaining personal hygiene can also be difficult without the help of others, which can make them more susceptible to contracting a parasite. The physical and mental stress an infection puts on the body can take a toll on their already waning health, and they can lose their little independence until they receive proper care. Increased dependence not only poses a problem for caregivers but can also be detrimental to a senior’s sense of well-being.

Behavioral, personality, and cognitive changes

Some parasitic infections, such as toxoplasmosis, can infect the host for a prolonged period of time, but they can remain physically asymptomatic. Complications from the parasite can arise with a compromised immune system, which many seniors are affected by. Damage to the brain, eyes, and organs can result from a severe infection. Recently, the University of South Carolina found that toxoplasmosis can alter a person’s behavior, personality, and cognition. It could also lead to changes in dopamine levels — where low levels of dopamine have been linked to depression — and the development of psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia. It’s also possible that some older adults were infected in their youth and experienced no symptoms, but their age-weakened immune systems can no longer keep the parasite at bay. Without the body’s defenses, they may experience the impact much later in life, making treatment more difficult.

Declined mental health

Besides physical health, a parasitic infection can also harm a senior’s mental health. A Cambridge study published on NCBI uncovered that upon testing positive for parasitic infection, people are four times more likely to develop a mental illness. Parasites can cause mental illnesses through biological and socio-environmental paths as well as the hosts’ genetics. These infections can also exacerbate these mental health issues through stigma and lack of proper care. Healthcare professionals are generally adept at diagnosing and treating physical illnesses in the elderly. Still, the unseen effects of a parasitic infection on their mental state aren’t as quickly noticed and could lead to more complications with their overall health.

Parasites and parasitic infections prey mainly on the vulnerable, such as older people. They must receive the proper attention in all areas of their health to ensure the infection’s effects will not permanently ruin their quality of life.

Written by Aleah Kristine Coleman
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