As you begin to age, so does your immune system, decreasing in its natural functions the older you get. When your immune system ages, your ability to naturally fight off infection reduces, making you more susceptible to a wide range of illnesses. Ultimately, as you age, it may seem like you get sick more often than you did when you were younger because your immune system weakens with age. However, most people’s immune systems still function fairly well as they get older, working well enough to ward off infection and illness.
The Effect of Aging on the Immune System
Your immune system is responsible for keeping your body healthy by warding off bacteria, viruses, fungi, and even cancer. It consists of a complex network of blood cells, organs, and lymph nodes that produce white blood cells that fight off infection. Unfortunately, your age determines how healthy your immune system is. As you age, your immune system isn’t as effective as it once was, and it can take longer for your body to take action against infections because there are fewer white blood cells to fight. Ultimately, you get sick more often the older you get, and infections become more severe.
Luckily, your immune system has spent your entire life learning how to fight infections, so having fewer white blood cells may mean infections are more severe, but your immune system has learned a thing or two based on illnesses you’ve already fought. That being said, new infections can be life-threatening or take you longer to heal because your body has never fought them before and doesn’t have resistance.
Unfortunately, science still hasn’t provided an explanation for why immune system function decreases with age. However, research has demonstrated that seniors don’t respond well to vaccines because the immune system, which relies on its ability to remember infections and other invaders to fight them better later, doesn’t respond well to new invaders.
In addition, seniors are more likely to get sick due to fewer immune cells and the reduced communication between the cells as you age. Therefore, older adults take longer to recover from illnesses and may be susceptible to worsening conditions.
Underlying Health Conditions
Getting older increases your risk of developing serious diseases, but it’s not only the immune system that’s to blame. Instead, older adults may also have underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk for developing other conditions, affecting their body’s ability to fight infection and heal. In addition, your metabolism slows as you age, and being overweight or having diabetes can cause more severe illnesses. As you age, this creates the perfect storm of reduced immunity and other health issues that leaves you susceptible to worse illnesses.
Inflammation is also something to note. While inflammation is typically viewed as a bad thing, it’s simply a symptom of your body’s natural response to injury or infection. However, some people can experience chronic inflammation when their body perceives non-threats as threats, and the ongoing response can damage the immune system’s healthy cells.
In general, inflammation gets worse as you age due to the changes in the immune system cells. Unfortunately, inflammation can be dangerous if it’s not controlled, leading to a variety of health conditions like heart disease.
Additionally, for those with female reproductive systems, ensuring you go to the gynecologist at least once a year for pap smears and seeking treatment when experiencing abnormal symptoms from yeast infections or other illnesses, can help ensure you remain healthy. For men, it’s important to also get regular checkups for male-related illnesses such as prostate checkups.
When Does Immunity Decrease?
Unfortunately, there’s no set age that determines when your immune system function will decrease; everyone experiences this phenomenon at different rates. In addition, there’s no way to determine how well your immune system is functioning throughout your life, so it’s important to schedule regular visits with your doctor, especially as you get older.
Can You Prevent It?
Immune system function decreases as you age, but in most cases, it still performs well enough to keep you healthy. However, even though you can’t prevent your immunity from decreasing, you can still support your immune system to help it function better. Here are a few ways to support immunity:
Stress can negatively impact your immune response over time while triggering other health issues like poor sleep and an unhealthy diet, all of which can affect your immunity. Look for ways to reduce your stress levels, such as deep breathing, exercise, or spending some time with your pets.
Get Enough Exercise
Exercise is key for boosting your immune system. As you age, you may find you can’t run as fast as you used to or you get tired faster, so it’s important to find physical activities you can do at home, such as walking the dog or climbing the stairs at your own pace. If you take active measures to improve your physical health early on in life, for example through exercise, the rate at which your immune system deteriorates will slow.
Getting enough sleep can help your body repair and recover, enabling it to fight infections better. Poor sleep quality lowers immunity, so aim to get at least seven hours of sleep every night to ward off infections and illness.
While many vaccinations are less effective in older adults, getting vaccinated can still lower your risk of serious health issues, including the flu. Since you should be visiting your doctor at least every year, you can check with them to ensure you’re up to date on all your vaccinations. Luckily, getting vaccinated is easy, and you may simply need to schedule an appointment with a nurse instead of your doctor.
Your diet, like fitness, can improve your immunity. Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all diet to improve immunity. However, eating a balanced diet that’s rich in vitamins and minerals can support your immune system as you age. It can also keep you at a healthy weight to prevent weight-related health issues like diabetes.
As you age, you may notice you get sick more often than when you were younger. You’re not alone. As you age, your immune system doesn’t function as well as it once did, but there are many ways you can promote a healthy immune system to battle infections no matter how old you are. With proper diet and exercise, you can help prevent serious illness as you get older.
Megan Isola holds a Bachelor of Science in Hospitality and a minor in Business Marketing from Cal State University Chico. She enjoys going to concerts, trying new restaurants, and hanging out with friends.