If you feel like you’re slowing down a bit as you age, you’re not alone. Many of our systems (including our brain) tend to taper off as we get older and the immune system is no exception, says David Ojcius, an expert in immunology research at the University of the Pacific in San Francisco, California.
The good news, says the assistant dean of research at the University of the Pacific, is that immunity tends to age “better” than some other bodily functions. With that being said, here’s some more to know about immunity and aging.
At the heart of the matter is the lower production of certain immune cells including T-lymphocytes as you age, says David Ojcius. These cells can learn as part of your adaptive immune system and are responsible for attacking pathogens that can make you sick. Because of this, some common vaccines that rely on the cell’s “memory” to fight off infections are not as effective as a person ages because of a lack of T-cells.
Adding to the problem with immunity in the aging population is the fact that immune cells don’t communicate as efficiently. The end result could be a delayed immune response to certain threats, giving them a chance to thrive and make you ill.
While the “adaptive” immune system — the one that learns specific antigens to better fight infections — slows down, the other part of the immune system increases in older age, notes David Ojcius. More specifically, it’s called the innate immune system, which immunology research has shown has been evolving for hundreds of millions of years.
This system is the first to detect and fight off pathogens that can potentially cause illness. However, this system can also trigger more inflammation in the body in later years, which is linked to aging itself (known as inflamm-aging) as well as inflammatory diseases such as arthritis in the elderly.
The San Francisco, California, professor notes that while there are going to be natural declines in your immunity as you age (medically known as immunosenescence), exercise can help to slow the process. For example, while exercise is important to regulate mood, it can also help move cells more freely which could result in a more effective immune response, explains David Ojcius.
The University of the Pacific researcher also points to research that shows the outcomes of regular exercise on immunosenescence, that shows lymphocyte response in active adults is more effective compared to those with a sedentary lifestyle.
However, while exercise can be a challenge for some of the older population, there are other factors that can contribute to lowered immunity with age that can be considered. For example, getting proper sleep (seven hours or more) is key to immune function. Chronic stress can also negatively impact immunity.
Meanwhile, since inflammation tends to ramp up later in life, certain foods can help counteract this. One diet looked to as an example is the “Mediterranean diet,” which tends to be heavy on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fish, while reducing red meat.
While we are more at risk for infections as our immune systems age, following certain steps such as being active, cutting out smoking, and getting certain vaccines can give your natural defenses a boost, explains David Ojcius.