‘Tis the Season…For Illness! How Seniors Can Boost Their Immune Systems

These days, we’re all thinking about our health and immune systems, and if you’re an older adult, that probably goes double for you. But even before people of all ages were wondering whether they should be disinfecting their groceries, you’d probably been noticing that your immune system just wasn’t what it used to be. And now maybe you feel like you get sick more often than you did when you were younger, or that it takes longer for you to get back on your feet again – so is that all in your head? And what can you do to give your immune system the boost it needs as the cold and flu season hits us?

Is Your Immune System Not Quite What It Used to Be?

red blood cells with virus pathogens floating around
As you age, your immune system gets weaker, making it harder for it to fight off viruses.

The answer to whether you’re just imagining a decline in your immune system is no, you’re not just imagining it. Your immune system – your body’s natural defense against illness and infection – does tend to get weaker with age. That’s actually the ironic thing about our increasing life expectancies: as we live longer and longer, we see more and more how our bodies decline with age, and our immune systems are no different. They take a hit with age, allowing more infections, diseases, and cancer to take hold; this tendency to lose some of our immunity as we age is known as “immune senescence.” 

“Just as you probably can’t run as fast as you used to in your 20s, your immune system doesn’t work as well as it used to,” says Aaron E. Glatt, MD, chairman of the department of medicine at South Nassau Communities Hospitals.

While scientists aren’t quite sure why this happens, they have observed that the increased risk of infections (and of dying of respiratory illnesses like the flu, pneumonia, and Covid-19) for older adults is linked with a decrease in T cells (which attack other, illness-causing cells). This is possibly due to the normal atrophying of the thymus gland with age, which leads to it producing fewer T cells to fight off infection. There is also some speculation that our bone marrow becomes less efficient at producing the stem cells that help create the cells of the immune system, or that inflammation and infections chip away at our immune systems over time.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the following three things happen as you age:

  • Your body doesn’t respond as well to vaccines – Again, when you’re older, you don’t make as many T cells, and most vaccines need new ones to work. But that doesn’t mean you should skip your vaccines! Despite the reduction in efficacy, vaccinations for influenza and S. pneumoniae have significantly lowered the rates of sickness and death in older people when compared with no vaccination.
  • You become more susceptible to illness – Not only do you have fewer cells that fight infection, the ones you do have also don’t communicate as effectively with each other, meaning they might not be as quick on the uptake when it comes to reacting to germs (hey, it happens to the best of us!)
  • You recover from illness, injury, and infection more slowly – You also produce fewer white blood cells as you age, which can slow down recovery from illness.

What Can You Do?

While all of the above is true, and can mean a bit more worry as we approach the germy winter season, you don’t have to take it all lying down (in bed, with a box of tissues at hand). While there is no magic cure-all, you can try the following things to keep your aging immune system as strong as possible for as long as possible:

Get Your Z’s

woman sleeping in a big bed

Getting enough sleep is important at every age, but as you get older, it becomes even more important since it helps improve brain function, concentration, and memory. But sleep is also important for keeping your immune system strong: according to Gisele Wolf-Klein, MD, ““Research clearly shows that too little sleep – or poor-quality sleep – lowers immunity, even in young healthy people.” Aim for at least 7-9 hours of sleep a night; remember to keep your bedroom dark, cool, and screen-free, try not to take excessive naps, and limit caffeine consumption to get your optimal amount of sleep. 

Work on Your Stress Levels

A bit of short-term stress probably isn’t going to affect your body, but chronic stress can actually take a toll on your immune system. When under stress, your body increases the production of the stress hormone, cortisol, which has the side effect of limiting bodily functions that aren’t essential in a fight-or-flight situation. That means that constantly producing extra cortisol could lower your immune system response, and make you more susceptible to illness; not only that, but you might find yourself sleeping and eating poorly if you’re under constant stress, which can also work against you. Try to find ways to relax that you enjoy, or add meditation, breathing, or yoga into your life, and remember to set limitations and say “no” when you need to focus on you.

Eat Healthy, Including Immune-Boosting Foods

There isn’t one single food you can eat, or diet you can follow, to improve your immunity, but it is important to eat a healthy, varied diet full of vitamin and mineral-rich foods, like fresh fruits and veggies. You should especially look for dark, leafy greens and anything in the red, yellow or orange family, which are loaded with immune-boosting vitamin C and antioxidants. Some researchers do suggest trying to incorporate the following immune-boosting foods:

different kinds of citrus fruits
Citrus fruits can help boost your immune system.
  • Citrus fruits
  • Watermelon
  • Ginger
  • Spinach
  • Greek yogurt
  • Chicken

Exercise and Maintain a Healthy Weight

Some researchers believe that excess weight – especially abdominal fat – triggers inflammation, which not only increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes, but also puts stress on your immune system. Eating a healthy, varied diet as discussed above can also go a long way toward maintaining a healthy weight, as can moving your body more, helping to keep your immune system working at its best. Research also suggests that exercise helps cells move more freely, which helps them do their job better.

Quit Smoking

The chemicals in cigarettes are known to damage lung tissue and increase the risk for cancer, but they can also cause respiratory illnesses such as the flu, bronchitis, and pneumonia. There are so many good reasons for quitting, so if you smoke, talk to your doctor about the best way for you, whether it’s a gum, a patch, a prescription medication, counselling, or a combination of these methods.

Get Outsidetwo older people sitting on a boat in the sun

Spending a little time out in the sunshine can help to boost your vitamin D levels, which can help strengthen your immune system; if your vitamin D levels are really low, your doctor can prescribe supplements or recommend an over-the-counter supplement. Just remember not to spend too much time in the strong sun, so you can avoid sunburns and excessive amounts of UV radiation, which can cause cancer. 

Stay on Top of Your Health

If you’re living with chronic conditions like diabetes or arthritis that affect your overall functioning and make you feel less than tip-top, make sure to follow all of your doctor’s recommendations for keeping these conditions under control. Again according to Dr. Glatt, “Keeping illnesses like diabetes well-controlled takes less of a toll on your immune system.”

Get Vaccinated!hand with a blue glove on it holding a needle.

Yes, we did point out that vaccines are not as effective for older adults, but they are still an extremely important way to lower your risk of illnesses that can be much more serious for seniors, like flu and pneumonia – not to mention Covid-19. And they have been proven to significantly lower risks of infections in older adults when compared to taking no vaccine at all. Talk to your doctor about all of the vaccines that you should be getting, and find out how many doses you need of each one, as well as whether they are a one-off or an annual necessity.  

There’s no denying that aging takes a toll on your body, and your immune system can feel like just another casualty as you get older. But, while you can’t reverse the aging process, you can take steps to keep your immune system as strong as possible – so, when prepping for the winter months ahead, don’t forget to include boosting your immune system on your list of things to do!

“Arthritis Lifestyle”, the Key to Managing Your Pain?

Arthritis stinks. The pain and stiffness can really put a damper on your day (or night), so you’ve probably put a lot of thought into what helps relieve your symptoms. Maybe you’ve noticed that you feel better when you add some exercise and movement into your day, so you try to do yoga or walk the dog when you get a chance. Maybe a good night’s sleep helps, but it’s so hard to stay asleep all night with the pain! 

Trying to work towards getting more exercise, movement and sleep are great goals for dealing with your arthritis, but doctors who have completed a study on arthritis management are now saying that you shouldn’t look at these habits as separate parts of your day. Rather, they believe that you should know how movement and sleep work together to improve or worsen your symptoms. They also urge arthritis sufferers to know their “arthritis lifestyle” so they can more effectively manage their pain

older asian man with his eyes closed and his palm on his cheek
There is a link to sleep and arthritis pain, if you get enough, then you can manage your pain better.

How Much You Move and Sleep Are Key

It’s already been proven that movement and sleep are especially important for people with arthritis. Getting enough quality sleep can:

  • Help you manage pain better, and even raise your pain threshold
  • Boost your immune system
  • Allow your body to repair damaged tissue

In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that sleep loss makes certain pain centers in the brain more active and reactive than they would be after a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, you might find yourself in a vicious circle, in which pain makes it difficult to sleep, and lack of sleep makes it difficult to feel better. As Christopher R. Morris, MD, a rheumatologist in private practice in Kingsport, Tennessee, points out, if a person sleeps poorly, “the muscles can’t fully relax. If they’re fatigued, they hurt. If they hurt, they get fatigued, and they hurt more.”

How about moving your body? Exercising, as well as movement that isn’t specifically considered “working out,” is the other key to managing arthritis symptoms. For example, according to research published in Arthritis Care & Research, people with lower extremity joint pain and stiffness who engaged in moderate to vigorous activity for at least 45 minutes a week had improved function compared with less active adults.

Unfortunately, most people with arthritis don’t move enough. According to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, only 36% of adults with arthritis get the recommended weekly amount of physical activity. Again, while some of this may have to do with lifestyle restrictions, some of it may be related to another vicious circle: you hurt, so you sit more, so you hurt some more. But now we know that you also need to consider how your sleep affects your exercise vs. sitting habits, and vice versa, as well as how they all interact to make up your “arthritis lifestyle.”

What’s Your “Arthritis Lifestyle”?

Dr. Lynne Feehan, PhD, a physical therapist and clinical associate professor of physical therapy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and her colleagues, are interested in that exact issue: how do people with arthritis balance movement, sitting, and sleeping throughout their days, and how does this balance affect them? Feehan believes that you can’t separate these habits: “Evidence suggests that keeping more physically active during the day makes you more likely to have better sleep quality and duration at night,” she says. 

She also believes that “We can’t assume that a patient with knee arthritis needs to increase their physical activity, because maybe it’s their sleep or sitting behavior that are bigger issues.” That’s why she and her colleagues looked at 172 people with arthritis and their exercise, sitting, and sleeping habits and created the following four “arthritis lifestyle” categories. Take a look and see which one you might fall into!

caucasian hands holding each other on a woman's lap with a skirt and cardigan on

  • The High Sitter Type: People in this category spend an average of 13 hours per day sitting, which is well above the recommended threshold of 10 hours. They get less than 20 minutes of exercise (such as brisk walking) a day, and move around for only around 1.6 hours per day (for example, walking to their car or moving around the house). They also get less than the recommended 7 hours of sleep, getting only around 6.9 hours per night on average. 
  • The Low Sleeper Type – How about people who get even less sleep than that? “Low sleepers” get only around 6.5 hours per night on average, and they also sit too much for good health (around 12 hours per day). But they do get in more exercise, as they tend to walk briskly for about 30 minutes a day and move around for approximately 3 hours a day in their daily lives.  
  • The High Sleeper Type – As the name implies, this group gets more sleep than the others, clocking in at a luxurious 8 hours a night on average. They also sit less, hitting the more recommended amount of around 10 hours per day. But they need to move more: they only tend to exercise for around 18 minutes a day, although they move around for approximately 2.5 hours. 
  • The Balanced Activity Type – This is the category you should be aiming for! People in this group get an average of almost 7.5 hours per night, get plenty of exercise (around 45 minutes a day), move around for more than 4 hours a day, and only sit for around 9 hours. 

What To Do

older man sitting on a table with a male doctor touching his knee with one hand and holding a clipboard in another.
If you keep experiencing a lot of pain, it is best to talk to your doctor about your arthritis lifestyle.

The categories above are a way for you to assess your own lifestyle, and how your movement, sitting, and sleep habits might be interacting to affect your pain. Your best bet is to strive to be in the “balanced activity” category, although it’s understandable that this might be difficult if you’re juggling a busy lifestyle or having trouble sleeping. But there are things you can do! Dr. Feehan suggests making small, incremental lifestyle changes, so that they’re more likely to stick, and to make a real difference. 

For example, to try and get more sleep:

  • Talk to your doctor if pain is the problem. In addition, try to find ways to minimize joint pain right before bed, like timing your medication schedule or even using a heating pad or taking a warm shower. 
  • Try getting to bed earlier, perhaps by moving your schedule around a bit and cutting down on couch time in the evening (which could also help cut down on your sitting time!)
  • On the other hand, don’t linger in bed if you can’t sleep. Get up, move around, and do something that’s not too stimulating until you feel sleepy. 
  • Make sure your bedroom is reserved for sleep, not working, watching TV, or using your phone or tablet. 
  • Get moving! As Dr. Feehan has made clear, exercise and sleep go hand in hand to help relieve symptoms. Exercise relieves stress, which can help you get more rest, and can help to tire you out.

When it comes to getting more of that precious exercise into your day, remember not to be afraid to move! Dr. Feehan points out that slowly increasing your physical activity level shouldn’t end up making your pain worse, and any extra aches you feel should be temporary, and hopefully lessen over time. “The pain most people feel is not doing damage or making the arthritis worse, and there are tremendous benefits,” she says. 

Walking not your thing? You can try some more low impact activities, like spinning, biking, or swimming. Yoga is also a great way to add movement and stretching into your day! 

The most important takeaway in all this is that each of us has a unique lifestyle that affects our health. For people suffering from arthritis, knowing how to balance movement, sitting, and sleep in their daily lives can make all the difference in managing pain and improving quality of life.