The immune system defends our body against infection. However, it gradually deteriorates as we age in a process called immunosenescence, leaving seniors more vulnerable to infection. While researchers are still trying to figure out ways to enhance immune function, a healthy lifestyle can help keep your immunity strong all year long.
A whopping 70-80 percent of your immune system is located in your digestive system. Its no surprise then, that a review of research on The Role of Nutrition in Enhancing Immunity in Aging published in 2012 concluded that “nutritional intervention has been recognized as a practical, cost-effective approach to attenuating age-associated decline in immune function, vaccination efficiency, and resistance to infectious and neoplastic diseases.”
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that while “no one food or supplement can prevent illness,” protein; vitamins A, C, and E; and Zinc can help support your immune system. They also note that “Other nutrients, including vitamin B6, B12, copper, folate, selenium, and iron also may support immune response.”
The best way to get all of these nutrients is through a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains like the whole-foods, plant-based diet.Harvard Health recommends avoiding saturated fat and sugar as well as red and processed meats. For more specific foods to add to your diet, like garlic and ginger, see our article 16 Foods To Help Boost Senior Immune Systems During Winter.
While obtaining these nutrients from foods is preferred, supplements can help older folks who have micronutrient deficiencies. Vitamin C supplements can improve the function of the human immune system and reduce the duration of common cold symptoms, however since it’s in berries, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, citrus fruits, peppers, potatoes, spinach, and tomatoes, the Mayo Clinic states that most people get their recommended daily amount from a balanced diet. Be sure to speak with a knowledgeable geriatric nutritionist before taking any supplements.
The general consensus is that like a nutritious diet, regular physical activity is important to overall health, ergo a healthy immune system. Harvard Health links the two more directly, citing, “Exercise causes your body's antibodies and white blood cells to circulate more rapidly, which means they may be able to detect and zero in on bugs more quickly.” The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week for adults ages 65 years and older. Try low-impact exercises such as yoga, walking, swimming, or biking. Not only will it help you maintain a healthy weight, but exercise also lowers stress hormones, both of which reduce your chances of getting sick.
Your body’s response to chronic stress suppresses the immune system. To reduce stress, try relaxing by focusing on your breathing. Meditation, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation are also proven ways to manage stress. Check out our Guided Meditations for Relaxation and Deep Sleep.
Speaking of sleep, a good night’s rest can ward off a cold. Sleep deprivation causes the body to pump out those same stress hormones that can suppress your immune system. The Mayo Clinic advises that all adults require seven to nine hours of sleep a night. If you need help getting to sleep, staying asleep, or going back to sleep, see our article on 9 Tips for Getting Better Sleep After 50.
Everyone, especially those over the age of 65, should be getting an annual flu shot. According to HealthLink BC, “Influenza vaccines are a safe and effective way to help people stay healthy, prevent illness, and even save lives.” Vaccinations train your immune system to fight off an intruder, like influenza. Older adults can have a higher risk of complications if they get the flu, but Harvard Health states that “vaccinations for influenza and S. pneumoniae have significantly lowered the rates of sickness and death in older people when compared with no vaccination.”
According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol can weaken your immune system. Harvard Health advises to quit smoking and only drink alcohol in moderation. The ODPHP says a moderate amount of alcohol is up to one drink a day for women and two for men.