Aging and the Immune System

It is just a fact of life that as seniors age their immune system tends to be less effective than when they were younger, according to immunity researchers. It is also believed that some declines …

It is just a fact of life that as seniors age their immune system tends to be less effective than when they were younger, according to immunity researchers. It is also believed that some declines are more prominent in certain seniors. Most individuals in the medical community are still actively trying to determine how and why immunity decreases with age. However, compared other bodily functions, the immune system of the average senior does actually work well, no matter your age. So which is it, do our immune systems really increase with age, or do they decrease with age? What researchers do know is that in general, seniors do not respond well to vaccines.  This is due to the loss of T cells, which may decrease as a person ages. As seniors age, their body loses its ability to produce as many T cells as the body did at a younger age. Vaccines need these new T cells to do their job they were designed to do.  Yet, for some, vaccines could still help. This being said, let’s continue to learn how else the body’s immune system changes as we grow older and become seniors.

How T cells work

So, what do T cells really do for us?  We know that T cell production reduces as we age.  The body’s immune system uses these T cells to attack other illness-causing cells.  In fact, they have the ability to remember an invader, so when they encounter this  same kind of illness-causing cell again, they remember what would be the best way to defend against it. Are there any exceptions to this rule?  Yes, which is the shingles disease. So that is why the shingles vaccine works so well in senior adults. 

Are you more likely to get sick as an older senior adult?

According to researchers, the answer is yes.  The reason is, seniors not only have fewer immune cells as they age, the ones they do still have, develop a form of dementia and sometimes forget how to communicate with each other.  Basically, their immune cells may see harmful germs as good germs, and leave them alone. The sad part is that we don’t necessarily know when this starts to occur, since there is no set age that the immune system starts breaking down. For example, people can develop a single strand of gray hair at different age times compared to everyone else. There are certain ways they can determine if your immune system is compromised; by looking at immune markers. However, it is not 100 percent accurate, and seniors are still encouraged to have regular primary care physician check ups.

How Can You Stay Healthy as a Senior?

By knowing what is abnormal for you. Let your physician know if your arthritis acts up or your diabetes increases. When you keep illnesses controlled, your immune system does not have to work as hard.  So, how do you control illnesses?  One way is by making sure you get plenty of rest. Sleeping well helps your immune system and keeps you healthy throughout the day.  A person should be getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night, according to the National Institute of Aging. In fact, if you are known to snore, or have trouble falling or staying asleep, make an appointment to see your doctor.  You might have a sleep disorder.

Lowering Stress levels

Another way to stay healthy is by reducing your stress level.  Stress can damage your immune system.  Being worried about even the little things can also damage your overall body.  Having stress can also affect your sleeping habits, your diet, or both for that matter. 

Stay away from the sick

Seniors should also stay away from sick people.  As a person gets older, they have a harder time fighting off illnesses.  So being around others who are ill can compromise a senior’s health. If you have to be around sick people, make sure to wash your hands. It is also good to have hand sanitizer handy.  Another tip is to take vitamin C and wear a mask if it makes you feel more secure. Seniors should also not skip the recommended vaccines. Having the seasonal flu shot is also recommended. Although, some vaccinations are not as effective for seniors, compared to a young adult. Older adults still should contact their primary care physician for any vaccinations that need to be updated. 

Daily healthy eating

Seniors should also make sure they are eating the right foods at the right time throughout the day. Older adults tend to just snack on what they can find in the pantry or fridge. And sometimes, it is not always healthy options. Caregivers should know the right portions for each older adult under their care. They can do this by making sure each meal is well balanced and with the right portions for their heath. Seniors should also try to exercise as often as they can. For seniors, moderate exercise is the best. Not only does it keep you fit, it will strengthen your immune system and lower your stress levels. 

Do not smoke or take steps to quit

No matter your age, smoking can cause major problems to your health. However, for seniors, it can weaken your ability to do normal activities throughout the day. Smoking can affect your immune system in a few different ways. One common way is makin a senior more susceptible to infections, illnesses, or common diseases. If you are over 60 and smoke, it is advised to speak with your primary care physician for help in quitting. Many people find it hard to quit a habit that has been part of their lifestyle for a long time. However, there are many support groups that can help assist in making the transition to good health easier.  

The Connection between Aging and your immune system

It all starts with immunosenescence: “a decreased capacity of the immune system to respond effectively to infections or vaccines in the elderly.”, according to the NIH. Basically, your body does not heal as fast compared to when you were younger, and your ability to fight off any forms of infection can be challenging for an older adult. Seniors can get and stay sicker longer, which makes it hard to plan for special events or spending time with family. Keeping up with the proper vaccinations is important for the elderly. With several strands of the COVID-19 still possibly active in the US, some primary care physicians recommend their older patients to get a booster shot when available. COVID tends to affect those in their 60s, 70s, and 80s much worse than younger adults. No senior wants to find themselves in the emergency room or ICU, for that matter, when symptoms start to develop. It is always good  to be well prepared. 

News on COVID-19 and your immune system

In a recent study, there is now a rise in the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccinations within the elderly. This study consisted of over 6.5 million U.S. veterans, and of them, about one-half were over 65 years old. According to the report, effectiveness against infection was around 97 percent overall, with 94 percent effective among veterans 65 and older. 

Other Ways to Improve Immune Health in Seniors

1. Wash your hands

To stop and prevent the spread of disease and germs, everyone should thoroughly wash their hands regularly. It is best to lather hands with soap and scrub well for at least 20 seconds. Then rinse hands with warm water. According to the CDC, seniors should wash their hands before, during, and after preparing food; before eating; after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; and after using the toilet. For those caring for others,it is also recommended to wash hands before and after doing personal care. Especially if they are sick and to prevent the spread of disease-causing germs to other people. 

2. Stay hydrated

Drinking plenty of fluids is important for seniors over 60 years of age. For those who do not get the recommended amount of liquids, dehydration can occur, which can lead to a variety of health concerns in older adults. Hydration provides many benefits as well, such as helping the body absorb nutrients and minerals better. Water can also boost your immune system and flush out body waste properly. Everyone know the saying, drink eight- eight ounces of water daily; however, most seniors only drink 5-6 cups per day. The best way to keep track of the right amount is by drinking every couple of hours, even if you are not thirsty. Sometimes it’s hard to drink plain water. A good suggestion is having a low-fat soup instead, or have a cup of caffeine-free tea or coffee, or drinking a cup of fat-free or low-fat milk. Seniors can also have a water bottle on hand while you go about your day. As long as you stay hydrated, you will boost your immune health in a positive way. 

3. Stay active

Along with drinking fluids, seniors should also stay physically fit. This will also help their immune system stay strong and fight off germs and diseases. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, doing at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity exercise each week can keep your immune health strong. Some good choices for seniors are flexibility exercises, such as Yoga or Tai Chi. They may help not only for immune health, but also strengthen muscle tone and improve balance; which many seniors find trouble with as they age. Some seniors may enjoy a 10- to 15-minute walk around the neighborhood.  

4. Get plenty of rest

To go with good hydration and staying active, seniors should also get enough sleep. Many older adults lack the necessary sleep that their body needs to stay healthy. Not receiving good sleep or having interrupted sleep patterns can cause your body to not heal from inflammation or infections, when they occur. Plus, sleeping problems are known to be linked to several chronic conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and depression. If you can’t sleep at night, it is recommended to take at least a couple naps throughout the day to help your body recover. Seniors should talk to their doctor for advice, if necessary. You should also limit caffeine or alcoholic beverages late at night. Stay to a regular sleeping schedule and seek help if conditions worsen. 

5. Reduce alcohol consumption

Ok, as just noted, alcohol consumption causes a person to have sleeping problems. But did you know it also weakens your immune system? If you are a healthy older adult, having an occasional nightcap may not do too much damage; however, it could cause a person with a low immune system find it hard to ward off infections. According to the CDC, older adults who are healthy should limit alcoholic drinks to no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.  

6. Spend time with others

Although there are some social distancing guidelines still active in certain places(doctor offices, hospitals, etc.), most community places are open for social gatherings. Seniors need to stay connected to close family and friends. This not only helps fight off loneliness and depression, it can also build up your immune health. If you are sick, stay connected by using other means, such as FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom. Each are easy to use and keeps you in touch with the ones you love in a safe way. 

If you believe your immunity is low, there are many other types of activities to try to boost your immune health. One is getting outdoors. Whether it is spending time in the garden or taking walk to the local park, breathing fresh air can be very beneficial to your immune system and help you stay healthy throughout each and every day. Seniors should be up on all the recommended vaccinations too. Especially the flu vaccine. Other shots that are recommended for seniors is the pneumococcal vaccine, the shingles vaccine, COVID-19 vaccine, and the Td booster. For vaccines you received in childhood, do not need to be repeated – such as the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella.