The immune system is remarkably complex, but for the most part, it does a tremendous job of protecting our body. But keeping those shields up requires maintaining a certain balance and harmony. And as we’ve discussed before, all of us face threats every day that work to undo that harmony—everything from stress and poor diet to sleep deprivation and inactivity. While most of these threats can be reduced or eliminated through lifestyle changes, one in particular is out of our control: aging.
We all realize the body is generally slower to heal as we age, and immune cells are often slower to spot cell defects—both of which may lead to chronic diseases and cancer. But what are the causes of this decline?
The Causes and Culprits
I’m sure you’ve noticed that older people tend to contract more illnesses – everything from the flu to pneumonia to cancer – but research is beginning to figure out why. And the findings could help all of us strengthen our immune systems.
Some research points to a decrease in T cells, the body’s immune cells responsible for recognizing and mounting an attack against invaders. This decrease could be caused by a decline in the thymus, the gland between your lungs that produces T cells. The thymus is largest in children and is naturally replaced by fat as you age; it actually produces all of your T cells by the time you hit puberty. Scientists don’t know if this natural atrophy is related to immune system decline or not, but many believe it plays a role.
Other research is looking at the bone marrow, and whether it begins to become less efficient at producing the stem cells that eventually become immune cells in the body.
Diet seems to have an impact as well. Even in wealthy countries, the elderly often suffer from what’s known as “micronutrient malnutrition.” This is when a person is not consuming certain minerals and vitamins in their food or through supplements, usually due to eating less and to a lack of variety in his or her diet.
Finally, those everyday threats eventually take their toll over the years. A lifetime of stress, as well as exposure to radiation, chemicals and diseases, can contribute to a diminished immune system.
Delaying the Decline
So while none of us can stop the aging process, all hope is not lost. Those same lifestyle changes mentioned above can also help you prevent much of the decline that comes with age.
One tip is a no-brainer but worth repeating: Exercise has such far-reaching benefits on the body, one of which is a boost to your immune system. Not only does exercise keep your bone marrow from turning into fat, but the production of endorphins helps stress levels. Weightlifting and jumping exercises in particular can be especially beneficial for your bones. A study from the University of Missouri showed these exercises may reverse age-related bone loss in middle-aged men. Pam Hinton, associate professor, reports,
“Weight-lifting programs exist to increase muscular strength, but less research has examined what happens to bones during these types of exercises. Our study is the first to show that exercise-based interventions work to increase bone density in middle-aged men with low bone mass who are otherwise healthy. These exercises could be prescribed to reverse bone loss associated with aging.”
Another tip? Eat healthy. It seems so simple, but it’s one of the most important steps to keeping your immune system balanced and in harmony. If you need help changing your eating habits, check out our tips on what to eat, and try some new recipes from Oscar Puig, our nutritionist. I know I’m biased, but he does a great job of introducing healthy, anticancer foods that are not only easy to make but also delicious. He makes eating healthy something you want to do!
Also, be sure you’re limiting your intake of alcohol, and if you smoke, quit right away—get help if you need it! Finally, make your home as safe as possible. Falls and injuries are a major health concern for older adults because the body is slower to heal. Try these tips:
- Remove clutter that might pose a trip hazard (electrical cords, small furniture, pet bowls, etc.)
- Replace throw rugs with non-slip rugs, or attach rugs to the floor with double-sided tape.
- Be sure stairs are free of clutter or items that could cause you to trip.
- Place a lamp within easy reach of your bed.
- Add lighting to all stairwells or any dim area.
- Install handrails on both sides of stairs and in your bath area.
With some basic changes to your daily activities, you can ensure your immune system stays as strong as possible through each passing year. Because while I can’t give you the secret to staying young forever, you have the power to at least feel younger!