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Aging and the Immune System

Aging and the Immune System

Since the start of the pandemic, many of us have been more aware of the viral infections and risks associated with getting sick, especially for the older population. 

 

Individuals 65 years and older are more susceptible than younger people to a variety of viral infections, including those that contribute to respiratory diseases. Additionally, as we age we recover slower from getting sick. Aging impacts both our immediate immune response as well our “memory” immune cells, which impairs the ability to fight off viral infections. Additionally, as we age, we respond differently to vaccinations as we need new T-cells in order for them to be effective, which means they might not be as efficient in protecting us from infections. 

 

Aging is associated with declined immune function, particularly T cell-mediated activity, which is responsible for destroying the disease-causing pathogens. Studies have shown that a nutrition-based approach may help to reverse or improve some of the diminished immune function that is associated with aging.


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Vitamin E

Vitamin E is an antioxidant that helps protect cells from damage and supports the immune system. While vitamin E deficiency is rare, intake above recommended levels can enhance T cell function as we get older, as well as decrease the incidence of upper respiratory infection in the elderly. Sources of Vitamin E include fats and oils, nuts and seeds, seafood, and leafy vegetables.

Zinc

Zinc is an important micronutrient that supports our immune system. It helps to activate the enzymes needed to fight infection. Most older adults have zinc intakes below the recommended amounts which can lead to a zinc deficiency.Zinc deficiencies are linked to impaired immune function and an increased risk of acquiring infection. Some of the signs of a zinc deficiency include delayed wound healing or loss of sense of smell and taste. Zinc can be found in red meat, poultry, shellfish, legumes, nuts, and seeds.


Vitamin D

Our kidneys normally can synthesize some Vitamin D from our skin into the active hormone form. As we age, this process becomes less efficient. While many people enjoy vigorous health and active lifestyles well past the age of 65, limited time spent outside may contribute to lower vitamin D levels. 


Since vitamin D plays a key role in not only a healthy immune system, but also cardiovascular, bone, and muscle health. It is important to be aware of vitamin D intake and the importance of maintaining adequate intake. Sources of vitamin D include fatty fish, like tuna or salmon, organ meat such as beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks. Additionally, foods that are fortified with vitamin D, like some dairy products, orange juice, soy milk, and cereals can help you boost your intake.

Probiotics

Probiotics are increasingly being recognized as an effective, immune-enhancing nutrient. A large part of our immune system falls in our gut. You can support a healthy microbiome with foods that contain probiotics such as yogurt and kefir. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi are also great sources of probiotics. 

 

Additionally, eating foods that contain prebiotics (foods and fiber compounds that support the growth of healthy bacteria) such as garlic, onions, barley, apples, and oats can help our immune system. Talk with your health care provider before starting any probiotic supplements, as there may be considerations for those who are immunocompromised or have certain health conditions.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Immune function is significantly impacted by our omega-3 fatty acid status. Increased intake of fish or omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial to inflammatory and autoimmune disorders, as well as to several age-related diseases. Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of fat that the body cannot produce on its own, so it is important to get them in our diet to stay healthy. Food sources include fatty fish such as salmon or halibut, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds.

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How else can you stay healthy as you age?

Sleep Well

We release healthy proteins and antioxidants during sleep, so getting enough sleep is important to keep our immune system healthy. Research links too little sleep, or poor-quality sleep, to poor immunity, even in young healthy people. The optimal amount of sleep for most adults is between 7 and 8 hours per night.

Reduce Stress

Stress has been shown to negatively affect your immune system and decrease your immune response. The hormone, corticosteroid, is increased during times of stress and can lower the number of lymphocytes (white blood cells) that our body produces which limits the effectiveness of the immune response. Some coping mechanisms to consider when trying to manage stress include physical activity, communicating with loved ones, indulging in a favorite hobby, mindfulness exercises, and journaling. 

Stay Active

There are theories that exercise can help circulate our white blood cells which fight infections, as well as improve the function of our lungs and airways. Aim for a variety of strength, flexibility, balance, and aerobic activity if possible. Even walking stairs or doing household chores can be a great way to keep moving. If you can, try to get some exercise outside so that you can enjoy the fresh air which can help to improve your mood and help you get a dose of vitamin D. 

Quit Smoking

Smoking decreases our body’s immunity and success at fighting off disease, making you more susceptible to illness and infection. Avoid being near smokers or consider looking into ways to quit if you are currently an active smoker.


Practice Food Safety

Be sure to cook foods (especially meat and eggs) throughly to prevent the likelihood of food-borne illness, which can suppress your overall immune system.


While changing your diet may be more challenging during stressful times, focusing on small changes, such as incorporating one or two additional servings of nutrient-rich immune-boosting foods can feel much more manageable. Taking the time to assess your current diet and needs or scheduling a telehealth appointment with a registered dietitian or other healthcare professional to help build a solid dietary foundation and plan can result in significant benefits. Even small, incremental tweaks to your diet and lifestyle can reap big rewards in the long run. 

 

Check out our previous blog on personalized nutritionhere if you would like to learn more about how personalized nutrition can be utilized in your everyday life to help you optimize your diet and support your overall health. 


References:


1. Wu, D., Lewis, E. D., Pae, M., & Meydani, S. N. (2019). Nutritional modulation of immune function: analysis of evidence, mechanisms, and clinical relevance. Frontiers in immunology, 9, 3160.

2. Lee, G. Y., & Han, S. N. (2018). The role of vitamin E in immunity. Nutrients, 10(11), 1614.

3. Gammoh, N. Z., & Rink, L. (2017). Zinc in infection and inflammation. Nutrients, 9(6), 624.

4. Cantorna, M. T., Snyder, L., Lin, Y. D., & Yang, L. (2015). Vitamin D and 1, 25 (OH) 2D regulation of T cells. Nutrients, 7(4), 3011-3021.

5. Lanske, B., & Razzaque, M. S. (2007). Vitamin D and aging: old concepts and new insights. The Journal of nutritional biochemistry, 18(12), 771-777.

6. Yan, F., & Polk, D. B. (2011). Probiotics and immune health. Current opinion in gastroenterology, 27(6), 496.

7. Gutiérrez, S., Svahn, S. L., & Johansson, M. E. (2019). Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on immune cells. International journal of molecular sciences, 20(20), 5028.

Photo of Frankie O'Brien

Medically reviewed by:

Frankie O'Brien, MS, RD, LDN

Registered Dietitian

Frankie is a registered and licensed dietitian who received her Master’s Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she also completed her dietetic internship. Frankie is passionate about helping others with mindful eating, lifestyle changes, weight management, and performance nutrition. She focuses on helping clients improve their relationship with food and navigate the misinformation in the media. Frankie has experience helping others make sustainable changes to help them reach their long-term goals. During her career, she has helped others find a healthy relationship with food so they feel empowered to ditch diets and trust their bodies.

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