Have you ever noticed when your grandchild catches a cold, it hardly seems to faze her? She may be coughing and sniffling, but she’s usually still playing and running around.
For you, however, a cold can wipe you out, leaving you cooped up on the couch for a few days.
What’s the difference between a child’s and a grandparent’s ability to manage an illness?
Aging affects how our bodies — and immune systems — function, but that doesn’t mean we have to be more susceptible to germs and illnesses as we get older. Consider these ways older adults can boost their immune systems.
How does the immune system change in older adults?
Our immune systems have two lines of defense. The first, innate immunity, is composed of our skin, cough reflex, stomach acid and mucous membranes. As we age, studies have shown that innate immune cells lose some of their ability to communicate with one another.
If viruses and bacteria can get past our innate immune defenses, the second line of defense — the adaptive immune system — kicks into gear. This system is composed of the thymus, spleen, tonsils, bone marrow, circulatory system and lymphatic system, and helps activate T cells, which help fight invading cells. These T cells are not produced as often in their “naive” state in older adults, which makes them less able to combat new health threats.
The National Institutes of Health says the following immune system changes could occur:
- The immune system becomes slower to respond, increasing your risk of getting sick
- An autoimmune disorder may develop (this is a disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissues)
- Your body may heal more slowly because there are fewer immune cells to bring about healing
- The immune system's ability to detect and correct cell defects also declines, resulting in an increased risk of cancer
4 Ways to Keep Your Immune System Strong
1. Don’t smoke. If you do, stop. Smoking does a number of things to your immune system. First, it allows the number of white blood cells in your body to remain elevated. These cells are continuously fighting against the constant inflammation caused by smoking.
Secondly, when you smoke, your body takes longer to heal from wounds because nicotine tightens blood vessels, which decreases the amount of nutrients supplied to a wound.
2. Get vaccinated. Older adults have different vaccination needs than the rest of the population, and getting the necessary vaccines can help keep immune systems strong.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends older adults get the following vaccines:
- Flu shot
If you have questions about what vaccines you should receive and why, talk to your doctor.
3. Get regular exercise. Physical activity has more benefits than building muscle and slimming your waistline. Getting regular exercise helps lower inflammation and boosts the production of immune system cells. Aim for at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week.
4. Wash your hands. Perhaps one of the easiest pieces of advice, washing your hands takes about 20 seconds and is your best defense against viruses and bacteria. Wash your hands:
- Before and after preparing food
- Before eating
- After going to the bathroom or changing a diaper
- After blowing your nose
- When treating a wound