As you age, your immune system may not work as well as it used to. You may need extra help to stay healthy and keep sickness at bay
Did you know?
- Your immune system can attack itself
Instead of attacking bacteria and viruses, your immune system can attack you. This happens as a result of an autoimmune disease where your immune system attacks and destroys healthy cells in your body by mistake. There are over 80 different types of autoimmune diseases. Common types are rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and coeliac disease.
- Being too clean can suppress your immune system
It may seem like the best way to stave off infection, but being excessively hygienic can prevent your immune system from functioning properly. Going overboard breaks down the natural oils in your skin that act as a barrier against bacteria, which can let bad bacteria in. It can also diminish good bacteria and minimise the development of your immune system.
- Lack of sleep can affect immunity
Sleep deprivation can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds, flu and other ailments. It can also impair your immune system’s disease-fighting abilities, and reduce the production of the antibodies needed to fight infection. Try to get a solid rest every night.
Age vs. your immune system
As you age, your immune system becomes less effective. The cells and proteins involved in maintaining a healthy immune system changes over the years.
- The body produces less complement (a protein cascade that fights bacteria) in response to bacterial infections.
- Bacteria, cancer cells and other dangerous substances become more difficult to destroy. This possibly contributes to the increased incidence of cancer among the elderly.
- T-cells, a type of white blood cell that helps the body fight diseases, responds less quickly to antigens.
- There are fewer lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell that is vital in the immune system) to respond to new antigens. This may put you at a higher risk for disease and your body may heal at a much slower rate.
- The stress response blunts as you age. The hormones that regulate the stress response such as cortisol, adrenaline and possibly prolactin, are reduced.
- Gene repair is impaired, resulting in reduced or defective cell repair and increased apoptosis (programmed cell death). This results in loss of reserve and poor organ regeneration and function.
Food for life
Life is a process of birth, growth, decay and death. Healthy lifestyle choices during the growth phase i.e. from birth to early adulthood create a sturdy body which will be more resilient to life’s onslaughts. Thereafter, maintaining a healthy lifestyle will delay or reduce the rate of “decay” and improve quality of life as we age.
“A ‘tea and toast’ diet is common among the elderly and can lead to nutritional deficiencies which further impair the immune system,” explains Dr Sundeep Ruder, consultant physician and endocrinologist at the University of the Witwatersrand. “A diet of fruit and vegetables that is low in refined sugar and processed food is the first line in maintaining a healthy immune system. It also helps to consume alcohol in moderation, quit smoking and get adequate sleep.”
Keep in mind, what you put in is what you get out. “Often people will make healthy lifestyle overtures after being diagnosed with a disease or when it is too late. There is a law of cause and effect at play in the universe: what you experience now is as a result of past actions. So, choose wisely what you do in your youth.”
To guide you with making the right healthy choices, speak to a trained healthcare professional such as a geriatrician or endocrinologist.
Move it or lose it
Moderate exercise can boost your immune system and ward off disease.
- Regular physical activity causes changes in antibodies and white blood cells, which may help prevent infections.
- Keeping active can help flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways, reducing your chances of contracting an airborne illness.
- The brief rise in body temperature during and right after exercise may prevent bacteria from growing. This temperature surge may also help the body fight infection more effectively.
- Exercise can be beneficial to hormonal health and overall wellbeing. Scientific studies have proven the benefit of a structured yoga program on hormonal health.
The supplement question
The immune system is a complex structure. Trying to enhance any part of it using immune-boosting supplements – most of which have little scientific evidence to back up their health claims – may be dangerous. Most of these products hint at a “naturally derived ingredient” i.e. found in plants. So, why not just eat well? However, if you have a nutritional deficiency, a supplement may be helpful. First, check with your doctor. It also helps to do your own investigation about a product and be wary of “miracle” immune-boosting cures or products with “magical” ingredients.
Do women really live longer than men?
There is some evidence that women have a more robust immune system that deteriorates less rapidly, which may be part of the reason why women live longer than men. But many other important factors are at play. According to Dr Ruder, “The difference in the aging of the immune system in men and women is poorly understood. However, some evidence links this difference to genetic variations on the X-chromosome and hormonal differences i.e. testosterone in men and oestrogen in women, but exact links are not known yet.”
Dr Sundeep Ruder, Consultant Physician & Endocrinologist