Is the immune system still effective as we age?

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29 September 2015

An ageing population

The world is getting older. People over 60 currently make up 11% of the world’s population. By 2050 this will have increased to 22%.

In the UK, there are now more than 11.4 million people aged 65 and over. However, this does not mean that our streets will be filled with zimmer frames – the role of retirees and the ‘silver surfer’ generation has changed dramatically in recent years. No longer is 65 considered ‘old’, and the clichés of pottering round the garden and entertainment by endless cups of tea are now hopelessly outdated.

Quite the opposite is true: 65 is the new middle-age. This group (known by sociologists as the “baby boomer generation”) is more active than ever before. They play a vital role in society – be it at work (full or part time), volunteering, or in many cases assisting with childcare for the family.

In order to cope with this new-found, demanding lifestyle it is vital that this group of over 60s have time to look after themselves. And, at this stage in life, it pays to take special care of the immune system.

What is the immune system and how does it change as we age?

The immune system is the general term used for a collection of structures and chemical processes taking place within the body. Its main responsibilty is to identify and destroy any foreign object which could have the power to cause disease.

Most often, these come in the form of infective organisms such as viruses or bacteria. But sometimes, other things go wrong and the immune system mistakenly sees normal body cells as foreign and dangerous. When this happens, an autoimmune illness develops.

As we get older, the immune system becomes less efficient or less effective. This has a number of consequences:

1. It might take us longer to recognise the presence of an infective virus or bacteria. And when it does do so, the immune response may not be as robust. This weakening of the immune response occurs naturally with age

2. There is a greater risk for developing autoimmune disorders. This is when the immune system starts to attack and destroy normal, healthy body tissues in error

3. Healing depends on immune cells and this can slow with age. For instance, fractured bones and cuts to the skin may take longer to heal

4. The immune system may not recognise and destroy ‘dangerous cells’ effectively. This means that a cell that could lead to cancer may be missed and is one reason why, in general, cancers are more common with increasing age.

How can we improve our immune system as we age?

  • Eat Well – as always, we must start by looking at our diet. The standard five servings of fruit and vegetables a day is recommended, and if you can have more please do so. This can be easily acheived nowadays with smoothies, soups and vast amounts of varied fruit and veg, easily available. Superfoods such as broccoli and berries are thought to help maintain mental capacity and, being full of antioxidants, can also fight certain age-related illnesses.
  • Stay Hydrated – tea or coffee might be enjoyable when you have your feet up, but don’t forget that the best drink is water. 5 to 6 glasses a day will do wonders in keeping you properly hydrated.
  • Avoid Smoking – there is really no simpler way of putting it. Smoking seriously damages your health and can also cause long-term harm to those around you. What else can be said? Your life expectancy will be reduced if you smoke – simple.
  • Exercise – perhaps the days of you running a marathon are gone, but most of us will still be able to cope with a brisk 15 to 20 minute walk each day. Regular exercise has been shown to have many benefits, from improving your mood to reducing the risks of a heart attack or stroke. And, it is good for the immune system too. So, think of joining the local rambling group, swim or cycle. If you have grandchildren, use them as an excuse to run round the park. Same with a dog – if you don’t have one, beg steal or borrow.
  • Drink moderately – alcohol is known to deprive the body of important nutrients needed for the immune system, so handle this with care and moderation.
  • Reduce stress – sometimes life can take us into unexpectedly stressful places. Whilst we are not in control of these surprises, we all have the ability to manage stress as well as possible. Having effective coping strategies for stress will help reduce the risk of many illnesses associated with stress.
  • Sleep better – people over 60 often report that normal sleep patterns become disturbed. We don’t quite know the reason for this but, for some, sleep is so poor that additional pressure is put on the immune system. In addition, sleeping poorly makes you less able to cope well with stress. A nap during the afternoon could be tempting, but make sure that this does not disturb your sleeping pattern further. To help achieve a good night’s sleep, get plenty of fresh air, make sure you have a comfortable bed in a dark room and avoid caffeine after 12 noon – with age, your liver does not handle caffiene as well as it once did. Remember that certain prescribed drugs may have an effect on your sleep pattern – read the leaflets which come with your medication. If you need some help, consider the use of Valerian and hops.
  • Keep busy – sitting round all day long is not good for you. Having a busy life with a packed diary is one of the best ways to keep sane and healthy. Make sure you have at least one appointment or activity to look forward to each day. Travel to places you have read about, learn a new skill or two, and take part in activities in your local area. Keeping busy is one of the most important strategies for keeping yourself motivated, alert and enjoying life. This can only be good for your immune system.
  • Make your gut happy – we have more immune system cells in our intestines than in our bloodstream. A study in Finland carried out with volunteers aged between 72 and 103, in a nursing home setting, found that regular intake of a particular type of cheese containing good probiotic gut bacteria improved immune response [1]. Supplements rich in L+ lactic acid such as lacto-fermented whey are an excellent way to keep the good bacteria in your gut happy.
  • Take Echinacea – this herb is most commonly associated with relieving colds and flu. It works by strengthening the body’s immune system and research has shown that it is particularly useful when one is under stress or can’t find time to eat properly [2]. The latest research has also shown that using Echinacea reduces the risk of developing complications of colds and flu, such as sinusitis, bronchitis and pneumonia [3].

We can’t avoid getting older. But, what we can do is to make sure that we have a fulfilling and enjoyable life, and to do so we need to keep ourselves healthy. It only takes a few minutes to make the changes described above – but the results will pay dividends in the years to come.

1. Ibrahim F, et al. FEMS Immunol Med Microbiol 2010.
2. Ritchie MR, et al. Phytomedicine 2011.
3. Schapowal A, et al. Adv Ther. 2015.

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