A recent study shows that elderly people have higher chances of picking up infectious diseases when compared with people who are relatively young. Worldwide, people over 65 years of age are usually more likely to die from respiratory infections, influenza and, particularly, pneumonia.
It is believed that immune function in a person deteriorates as their body ages. Older people seem to be more susceptible to infections, inflammatory diseases and cancer. And, as life expectancy increases, the incidence of age-related ailments has also been on the rise.
Though the science behind older people getting ill more often is unclear, some scientists feel that the increased risk is linked to a decrease in T cells, which play a central role in immunity. Other theories include bone marrow being less efficient with age. Scientists say it’s possible that stem cell production decreases resulting in lowered immune function.
Research has also been conducted on mice to explore why immunity seems to decrease as creatures grow older. The University of Arkansas studies cell death in rodents, comparing the lifespan of memory T lymphocytes in older mice with those of younger mice. It was found that the lymphocytes from the older mice died faster.
This implies that the immune systems of older mice lose their memory for microbes that they need to fight as the lymphocytes die off. Their immune systems cannot recognize the microbes when they reappear in the body and the immune response is compromised.
Lowered immunity is also apparent in older individuals with the way their bodies react to vaccines. Research has shown that in elderly people over 65, the effectiveness of the influenza vaccine was 23%. However, when given to healthy children above two years old, the effectiveness was 38%. Even so, these influenza vaccines have been seen to considerably lower the rates of illness and death in elderly people, when compared with older people who have not been vaccinated.
Science is also exploring the way that diet and nutrition affects immunity in older people. For instance, older people generally eat less and could miss out on consuming all the nutrients necessary due to the lack of variety in their meals. Researchers want to find out whether consumption of dietary supplements can be an efficient way to make up for any nutrient deficient.
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