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How to Keep Your Immune System Charged Up As You Age

7 min read

middle-aged people in spin class charging up their immune system

“Old age ain't no place for sissies.”

The above is a famous quote from the late actress Bette Davis, who died in 1989 at the age of 81. Written on Davis’s tombstone is the phrase “She did it the hard way.” This makes sense when you consider that Davis smoked 100 cigarettes a day right up to her death — even during (and after) physical therapy following four strokes.

So why did Davis say that old age is no place for sissies? One reason is that as you grow older, your immune system weakens. But that does not mean your golden years have to be filled with aches, pains and illness. You simply need to arm yourself with an understanding of what weakens your immune system and learn some things you can do to minimize its effect on your mobility and health. 

Understanding how the following five components of your immune system are impacted by age affords you the opportunity to proactively support your immune health.

  • White blood cells – A white blood cell (also called a leukocyte or white corpuscle) is a cellular component that defends the body against infection and disease by destroying infectious agents and cancer cells and producing antibodies. White blood cells originate in the bone marrow and circulate throughout the bloodstream. Your white blood cell count decreases as you age.  When older people are confronted with a new antigen (a toxin or foreign substance), their bodies are less likely to defend against it. Also, macrophages, which are large white blood cells, have the ability to destroy particles such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Aging impairs their function, which may be why chronic inflammatory diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease are more common in the elderly.

  • The thymus – Just under your breastbone and between your lungs resides a small, irregularly shaped gland called the thymus. The thymus makes T cells (T lymphocytes) that help fight infection, disease and foreign substances. It also makes hormones to help T cells develop and keep the immune system working properly. Your thymus is most active during your childhood and youth, peaking during puberty. Then, as you approach adulthood, your thymus shrinks and is replaced by fatty tissue. By about age 65, the thymus is unable to make new T cells.

  • B cells – Like T cells, B cells (a type of white blood cell) are produced in the bone marrow. Both T cells and B cells identify pathogens and other harmful foreign materials such as bacteria, viruses, parasites and dead cells. T cells can only recognize viral antigens outside the infected cells, whereas B cells can recognize the surface antigens of bacteria and viruses. In other words, you need both. B cells and their humoral immune response decline in elderly individuals.

  • Antibodies– A 2019 study, published in the journal Cell Host & Microbe, concluded that “a lack of antibody diversity may make the elderly more susceptible to the flu.” According to senior study author Patrick Wilson of the University of Chicago, “The major implication is that when a newly circulating influenza virus infects elderly individuals, they don't have quite the right tool to fight it because their antibodies are not as protective.”

  • The complement system – This system comprises more than 30 proteins as part of the immune system. Its job is to kill bacteria and neutralize viruses, as well as promote antibody formation and effectiveness. As we age, the complement system produces fewer proteins, which decreases the effectiveness of its response to bacterial infections. This leaves older people more susceptible to infections and cancers.

That’s the bad news. Now for the good news. Here are seven ways you can  support your immune system to keep it in fighting shape:

  1. Don’t smoke. If you smoke, you’re probably tired of having people warn you about the dangers of smoking. But you should seriously consider eliminating smoking from your life if you’re concerned about your immune system. When you smoke, your white blood cell count stays high because these cells are working overtime to combat the inflammation caused by smoking. And while a high white blood cell count might sound good, it’s a condition that has been linked to an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and even cancer. It gets worse. The nicotine in cigarettes causes your blood vessels to constrict, which decreases the nutrients, minerals and oxygen supplied to your tissues through your bloodstream. This slows the healing of wounds and increases your risk of infection and other maladies.

  2. Wash your hands. Washing your hands has been in the news a lot recently. It’s one of the easiest things to do and perhaps your best defense against harmful viruses and bacteria. The CDC recommends that you use soap and water when washing your hands. If soap is not available, they suggest using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. The following list from the CDC website, provides guidance on when you should wash your hands to maximize protection:

    • before, during, and after preparing food
    • before eating before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
    • before and after treating a cut or wound
    • after using the toilet
    • after changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
    • after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
    • after touching an animal, animal feed or animal waste
    • after handling pet food or pet treats
    • after touching garbage
  3. Lower your stress level. “Stress makes us susceptible to illness and disease because the brain sends defense signals to the endocrine system, which then releases an array of hormones that not only gets us ready for emergencies but severely depressed our immunity at the same time,”writes Andrew Goliszek, Ph.D., for Psychology Today. “Some experts claim that stress is responsible for as much as 90% of all illnesses and diseases, including cancer and heart disease.”

    Chronic stress can come from many sources, including financial difficulties, challenging relationships, death of a loved one, moving, health issues, pessimism, fear and taking care of a sick or elderly family member. But You can improve your ability to handle stress by practicing the following lifestyle habits:

    • Exercise regularly.
    • Connect and engage with people.
    • Learn to relax through techniques such as yoga, meditation and deep breathing exercises.
    • Eat healthily.
    • Get enough sleep.
    • Become an optimist.
    • Don’t be afraid to say “no” — and don’t worry when you do.
    • Engage in relaxing activities such as reading (become a lifelong learner!), painting and gardening.
  4. Get plenty of sleep. During sleep, your immune system releases cytokines  proteins, peptides or glycoproteins that mediate and regulate immunity, inflammation and hematopoiesis (the production of the cellular components of blood and blood plasma). Cytokines ward off infection, inflammation and stress. When you don’t get enough sleep at night, the production of these protective agents decreases. Most healthy adults require seven to nine hours of sleep at night, according to helpguide.org.

    Courtesy of the American Cancer Society, here are 10  tips that will help you get more sleep at night:

    • Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, even on the weekends.
    • Don't take naps after 3 p.m., and don't nap longer than 20 minutes.
    • Stay away from caffeine and alcohol late in the day.
    • Avoid nicotine completely.
    • Get regular exercise, but not within 2-3 hours of bedtime.
    • Don't eat a heavy meal late in the day. A light snack before bedtime is OK.
    • Make your bedroom comfortable, dark, quiet, and not too warm or cold.
    • Follow a routine to help you relax before sleep (for example, reading or listening to music). Turn off the TV and other screens at least an hour before bedtime.
    • Don’t lie in bed awake. If you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, do something calming until you feel sleepy, like reading or listening to soft music.
    • Talk with a doctor if you continue to have trouble sleeping.
  5. Increase hydration — Water, which helps carry oxygen to your cells, also prevents toxins from building up and harming your immune system. The standard advice with water is to drink eight glasses of water each day, with each glass being eight ounces (for a total of 64 ounces). If you’re over 65, up that to nine eight-ounce glasses of water.

    That said, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined that an adequate daily fluid intake for men is approximately 15.5 cups (3.7 liters/125 ounces) of per day, and for women approximately 11.5 cups (2.7 liters/91 ounces).

    The National Academies figures take into account that water is contained in virtually all food and liquids, so you can reach that total by drinking water and also consuming coffee, milk, tea, soup, popsicles and certain fruits and vegetables.

    Here are five tips to ensure you get your recommended intake level of water each day:

    1. Drink a glass of water with each meal.
    2. Drink water before, during and after you exercise.
    3. Drink water if you’re hungry, as thirst is sometimes confused with hunger.
    4. Drink a glass of water at a set time each day. Set reminders using an alarm or a smart device such as an Echo or Google Home.
    5. Drink a glass of water when you wake up each morning.
  6. Get regular exercise —Exercising regularly will help keep your immune system performing at its peak level. For people age 18 to 64, Health and Human Services recommends you get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (leisurely bike ride, doing light yard work, or a brisk walk) per week or at least 75 minutes of vigorous activity (hiking, running, or swimming laps), plus muscle-strengthening exercises. These guidelines also apply to people over 65 with the following four qualifiers:

    1. As part of their weekly physical activity, older adults should do multicomponent physical activity that includes balance training as well as aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities.
    2. Older adults should determine their level of effort for physical activity relative to their level of fitness.
    3. Older adults with chronic conditions should understand whether and how their conditions affect their ability to safely engage in regular physical activity.
    4. When older adults cannot do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week because of chronic conditions, they should be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow.

If you take responsibility for your immune health by incorporating healthy lifestyle habits and eating a nutritious diet, the likelihood is you won’t have to do old age the hard way.

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