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Effects of Aging on the Immune System

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Tara O'Connor LaRose, RN, Certified Care Manager

As you’ve no doubt heard, fall is the time to get your flu shots.  Tara, one of the RN, Certified Care Managers on the Age Navigation team has given us a good summary of why it’s so important:

We have an amazing protection mechanism inside our bodies called the immune system. It is composed of many interdependent cell types that collectively protect the body from infections and illnesses.  Here are the key features of this system and how it changes as we grow older:

The Organs of the Immune system are:

  • The bone marrow – where all cells of the immune system initially form.
  • The thymus – produces T cells, a type of blood cell that protects the body from infections.
  • The spleen – is an immunologic filter of the blood
  • The lymph nodes – function as an immunologic filter for bodily fluid known as lymph.

Did you know?

  • Inflammation is an immune response – when the immune system thinks there is trouble, it sends more cells to the site of the problem, causing swelling, pain, redness, warmth, and irritation.
  • The immune system changes throughout life. At birth, specific immunity is not fully developed. However newborns receive some antibodies from the mother during pregnancy, which protects them until their own immune system fully develops.
  • Allergies are the result of a hypersensitive immune system.
  • There are between 500 and 600 lymph nodes in the average adult human body.
  • When a spleen is removed, the liver takes over the job of destroying red blood cells.

The Effects of Aging

The immune system loses its ability to fight off infections as you grow older. Therefore the risk increases for illness and may make immunizations less effective.

The immune system’s ability to detect and correct cell defects also declines, which results in an increase in cancers associated with aging.

The thymus begins to shrink (atrophy) after adolescence. By middle age it is only about 15% of its maximum size.

For some, the immune system also seems to become less tolerant of the body’s own cells. This can lead to an autoimmune disorder — normal tissue is mistaken for non-self tissue, and immune cells attack certain organs or tissues.

Due to other changes in the body’s systems, there is an increased risk of injury in which bacteria can enter broken skin. Illness or surgery can further weaken the immune system, making the body more susceptible to subsequent infections. Diabetes, which is also more common with increasing age, can also lead to decreased immunity.

How can you be the Patient in Charge?

The first step to having a healthy immune system is to follow healthy living strategies:

  • Don’t smoke.
  • Eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low in saturated fat.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Control your blood pressure
  • If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation.
  • Get adequate sleep.
  • Get regular medical screening tests for people in your age group and risk category.
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Cook meats thoroughly
  • Get regular medical screening exams for people in your age group and risk category.

In addition, just as there are routine immunizations when you are children, there are also ones that are important as we get older. These optional immunizations are not necessary for ALL older people, but are appropriate for some, depending on factors such as your age, lifestyle, high-risk conditions, and type and location of travel. Talk to your health care provider about the following vaccines, recommended by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control):

  • Seasonal influenza (flu)
  • Tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough)
  • Shingles (for adults 60 years and older)
  • Pneumococcal disease (for adults 65 years and older and adults with specific health conditions)

Also see  Season Flu – Dangerous time for Elderly

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