Fresh spinach contaminated with E. coli bacteria led to the death of Elizabeth "Betty" Howard of Richland, said her attorney, William Marler of Seattle.

Howard, 83, contracted E. coli O157:H7 from eating bagged spinach in September, the state Department of Health said.

The Tri-City Herald reports that Benton County Coroner Rick Corson said the cause of death still was under investigation. He said it was premature to say the E. coli infection caused her death, but it is a possibility that’s being investigated. Corson said there were other age-related health issues that may have been contributing circumstances.

The elderly are far more susceptible to the lethal complications of disease, particularly E. coli O157:H7, than most.  Death rates for infectious diarrheal disease alone are five times higher in people over 74 years of age than in the next highest group, children under four years of age, and fifteen times higher than the rates seen in younger adults.

Published studies attribute the elderly’s heightened risks, both of infection and mortality due to infectious disease, to several factors:  the aging of the gastrointestinal tract (reduced gastric acidity/mobility), a higher prevalence of underlying medical disorders (co-morbidity factors), and immune system changes that leave the host less able to defend itself against infectious agents.