Hepatitis C Risk Increases
The aging of Baby Boomers is bringing great changes to this nation. Along with rising worries about safety nets and health care comes a concern about Hepatitis C. Boomers are 5 times more likely to have Hepatitis C than the rest of the U.S. population. 1 out of every 30 Boomers has Hepatitis C.
That doesn’t mean older and younger people can’t contract the disease. And although your parent may not notice symptoms of the disease when they were younger, the older they get, the more likely they’ll suffer potentially fatal effects.
Why Should You Worry?
The Hepatitis C virus, primarily spread by blood contact from an infected person, causes the liver disease Hepatitis C. The word “hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver.
Up to 25% of people infected are able to naturally clear the virus, but most can’t. Hepatitis C can be acute or chronic:
Acute Hepatitis C virus infection occurs within the first 6 months of exposure to the virus. It’s a short-term virus with symptoms that may include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, clay-colored bowel movements, joint pain or jaundice. However, about 20% of people with the acute infection never experience symptoms. Acute infection usually leads to chronic infection.
Chronic Hepatitis C virus infection is a long-term illness that occurs when the virus remains in a person’s body. Hepatitis C virus infection can last a lifetime and lead to serious liver problems, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or liver cancer. Up to 70% of people with chronic infection will develop chronic liver disease, up to 20% will develop cirrhosis over a period of 2 to 3 decades, and up to 5% will die from cirrhosis or liver cancer caused by the disease.
Hepatitis C Affects Seniors Differently
The Hepatitis C Association reports, “It is estimated that, each year, HCC (hepatocellular carcinoma) will develop in 1%-2% of patients with chronic HCV infection and cirrhosis. The risk of HCC increases significantly with age, probably owing to age-related changes in the ability to repair DNA and to the prolonged interval from the time of infection. The interval between infection and diagnosis of HCC may be shorter when the infection is acquired at an older age.
“Up to 30% of patients had psychological disorders, including depression, and up to 67% complained of fatigue. These symptoms may appear even in the absence of clinically significant liver disease. Age of >50 years was found to be associated with fatigue. Chronic HCV infection was associated with cognitive impairment, which was reported in patients aged 28-69 years with mild liver disease. The prevalence of cognitive impairment among older patients, who may have a higher susceptibility to this complication, has not been studied.”
My Parent Can’t Have Hepatitis C
No one knows why so many Boomers have Hepatitis C. However, it’s most likely the Boomers’ high incidence was caused by one of several factors:
- Medical equipment or procedures before universal precautions were adopted in mid-1980s
- Contaminated blood and blood products before screening procedures identified it in 1992
- Tattoos before sterilization procedures were enforced, especially those obtained overseas
- Sharing needles
Other causes include:
- Being born to a mother with the disease
- Needle sticks in a healthcare setting
- Sharing razors or toothbrushes
- Sexual contact with someone who’s already infected
The virus is not spread by sharing eating utensils, breastfeeding, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing, sneezing or through food or water.
How Can I Tell if My Parent Has Hepatitis C?
You can’t. No one can without a blood test.
A hepatitis C antibody test looks for antibodies to the virus. The presence of antibodies indicates that someone has contracted the Hepatitis C virus at some point in their life.
A non-reactive or negative result means a person does not have Hepatitis C. A reactive or positive result means Hepatitis C antibodies were found in the blood. This does not mean a person has Hepatitis C, but it does mean they’ve been infected at some point in the past.
If the test is reactive or positive, an additional blood test is required to determine if a person is currently infected.
Is There a Cure?
There is a cure for chronic Hepatitis C. Current treatments are more effective and have fewer side effects than those in the past.
At Optalis, we’re accustomed to being advocates for our residents. Our blogs are designed to inform patients, residents, and their families, as well as healthcare professionals. If we can help you with more information, please contact us. We will be happy to help!