One of the more serious health issues confronting an aging U.S. population is the rate of hepatitis C infection among people born between 1945 and 1965. Statistically, it is estimated that 75% of all people with the disease were born in that window, making them five times more likely to be infected than other age groups. Hepatitis C infections are caused by exposure to blood that carries the virus. In most cases involving older patients, however, the cause of the infection cannot be traced back to high-risk activities, such as sharing hypodermic needles or unprotected sex.
The more likely cause for this population is a blood transfusion or organ transplant during the 1970s or 1980s, when testing for the hepatitis C virus was minimal at best. In fact, testing blood and organs for transplant didn’t start until the early 1990s. That means many seniors could be infected and don’t know it because they haven’t started showing any of the symptoms, which may include:
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Dark urine
Plus, because our immune systems weaken as we age, hepatitis C is a more dangerous condition for seniors. For example, older patients with hepatitis C have a higher risk of developing cirrhosis than younger patients, who can experience minimal liver damage for years after contracting the virus. It’s also important to note that, while younger patients with severe liver damage may be eligible for a liver transplant, most organ transplant programs have age limits. In fact, it’s very rare for anyone over 70 to receive one.
What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that attacks the liver, creating chronic problems for many patients who contract it. While there are several other types of hepatitis, type C is one of the most severe, and it can remain dormant for decades after infection. That said, the American Liver Foundation estimates that up to 85% of all people infected with the hepatitis C virus eventually develop chronic symptoms. In the most severe cases, hepatitis C that is not treated can lead to liver cancer, cirrhosis, or liver failure.
Testing for a hepatitis C infection involves a series of blood tests that check liver enzyme levels, and many doctors will repeat the series after a few months just to verify the results. And while the Centers for Disease Control recommend screening seniors for the virus, it’s not done routinely, so you may need to request it from your physician. The good news is that hepatitis C is curable with treatment, but the first step is knowing whether you have it or not.
As with many illnesses and conditions, minimizing the damage caused by hepatitis C depends on early, effective care. Treatment options have advanced substantially in recent years, with several medications that can send the disease into remission and help infected patients enjoy healthy lives. For example, some prescribed medications can treat cirrhosis and other liver problems the virus can cause.
In addition to these medications, patients will also have to make some lifestyle changes, such as not drinking alcohol, which can weaken and damage the liver. Avoiding foods high in salt, fats and sugars is also strongly recommended, along with maintaining a healthy weight. Eating foods rich in iron and protein also help, as well as vegetables, fruits and grains.
If you have questions, play it safe and talk to your physician about being screened for hepatitis C. After all, early detection and treatment are the keys to protecting yourself from this disease.