Does Immunity Decrease With Age?
By Peter N. Landless and Allan R. Handysides
My husband is now in his 80s and does not cope as well as he used to with colds and respiratory infections. Do you have any advice about how I can help him maintain good health?
As we get older, our immune system may not always function as efficiently as it used to do. Additionally, immune cells stimulated by infection when we were young may decrease in number, and it can stress the system to produce protective antibodies quickly enough to fight off infection. An example of this is the risk of shingles. Older people who had chicken pox and therefore carry the virus hidden away in their nerve cells may experience an outbreak of shingles as their immunity wanes. People who are infected with HIV (the AIDS virus) also have a weakened immune system and become more susceptible to infections.
One approach to building immunity to specific agents is to be immunized. This process dates back to the years when a cowpox serum was shown to prevent smallpox. Ellen White availed herself and her family of this vaccine when it became available. Since then, smallpox has been totally eliminated, and many of the other epidemic infections are now controlled. For people who are aging, we generally recommend keeping abreast of the current risk factors by taking flu shots; for some, a periodic pneumonia vaccine may also be helpful. Your doctor will advise about a specific regimen for your husband.
It is important, however, to realize the benefits of an active and healthful lifestyle. Exercise improves the tone and capacity of our respiratory muscles and can be very important to our recovery.
We know that older people often neglect their nutrition. When ill, the patient feels less inclined to eat well, which makes matters worse.
As we get older we sometimes think we cannot afford a good diet. Some even go as far as to purchase supplements, but this is not the best answer. We should eat a diet that provides a nutrient-dense array of foods. Such a diet is loaded with those goodies often called micronutrients. These are elements such as zinc, selenium, vitamins C and E, as well as the carotenoids that fight illnesses such as pneumonia.
In September 2012 the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society published an interesting article. Some 217 people, aged 65 to 85, were followed for three months and had a three-month follow-up. One third took a nutrient-rich diet; another third had supplements added to their diet to make it similar in content to the first group; and the other third had their regular diet plus a placebo to make them think that they too had supplements.
All the participants kept a daily record as to how they felt, the infections they had, and whether they had a fever.
The findings showed that at the end of six months the group consuming the nutrient-dense diet had significantly fewer infections and medical visits. They also functioned better in other measures of health. The supplements did not work as well.
Money invested in fruits and vegetables—at least five servings a day—will repay in health much better than that spent on supplements. Colored vegetables such as carrots, squash, pumpkin, cabbage, broccoli, and, yes, my favorite—Brussels sprouts—all pay dividends of good health. Whole grains are nutrient-dense, providing zinc, B vitamins, iron, fiber, magnesium, and selenium. A small handful of nuts taken daily provides Omega 3s, zinc, vitamin E, and, in the case of Brazil nuts, selenium. Vitamin D supplements, however, may prove beneficial during the winter months in northern or extreme southern regions.
The best way to help your husband is to plan his diet carefully, making sure you prepare a variety of healthful, nutrient-dense foods.
Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.
Allan R. Handysides, a board-certified gynecologist, is a former director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.