‘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!

Are These Habits Aging You?

There’s no denying it: we’re all getting older. Aging is not something that any of us can avoid – and hey, it’s not so bad, considering the alternative! But that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to age well. Whether you’re thinking about looking your best, feeling your best, or both, there are certain lifestyle habits that could be keeping you from living your best life, now and later on. Know what they are so you can make the healthiest choices possible, and consider adding in some positive habits, so you can shine on for years to come!

1. Not Getting in Your Zzzz’s

young caucasian woman sitting down in front of a computer at night with coffee in her hand.
Not getting the proper amount of sleep, whether due to working late or being a night owl, is not good for you.

Your later years are certainly not the time to skip out on your beauty sleep. You might think that you need less sleep as you age, but that’s actually not true. Your sleep patterns might change, but you still need to shoot for a good 7 or 8 hours a night. Not getting enough sleep can keep you from being at your best during the day, can cause unnecessary stress and begin to affect your mental and physical health. 

To get more sleep, first rule out any medical concerns with your doctor. Then, try solutions like sticking to a bedtime schedule, limiting naps, getting more exercise, and keeping screens out of your bedroom.

2. Stressing Out

Stress is everyone’s enemy, young and old. But did you know that studies show stress can actually change your brain function? These studies suggest that letting go of stress can help you avoid cognitive impairment and keep your mind younger and fresher for longer. How to lighten some of the load? Try some simple relaxation techniques, including listening to music, doing a few easy yoga poses, journaling, talking to a friend, practicing mindful meditation (not sure how? Try an app like Headspace or Calm), or even just sitting quietly and closing your eyes (add in a stress ball or fidget spinner if you like!). 

3. Forgetting to Forgive

caucasian woman standing with her back to the young african american woman sitting on the floor looking away from her with her hands crossed.
Holding a grudge can affect your overall health, including giving you high blood pressure and heart issues.

It may surprise you to know that studies have actually been done on how the ability to forgive others affects us physically, as well as psychologically. And the results are in: the benefits of forgiveness include lower blood pressure, less depression, less stress, and less anxiety. Forgiving can also help you let go of unhealthy anger, which can contribute to muscle tension, heart problems, and decreased immune function. Not only that, but when you let bygones be bygones, you can go back to living a more productive life – and you’ll probably end up with fewer frown lines!

Where do you start with forgiveness? Well, start by forgiving the small things. Then, when it comes to the bigger hurts, talk them through with someone, and try to find ways to look on the bright side. Instead of stewing with resentment, work towards your own happiness and focus on the good in your life. 

4. Passing on Fruits and Veggies

You might need fewer calories as you age, but where you get those calories still matters! Being a junk food addict or a strictly meat and potatoes person is not going to cut it when it comes to keeping you looking and feeling your best. Want a healthy glow as you age, as well as a healthy gut and heart? Remember to eat your rainbow (lots of colorful fruits and veggies), as well as heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and fiber-rich whole grains. 

5. Sneaking Out for a Smoke

This one might be both the easiest and hardest habit on the list – the easiest to identify as extremely unhealthy, but the hardest to quit. But there are plenty of reasons to look for a way to kick the butts, both for health reasons and aesthetic reasons. Studies show that in addition to shortening your life by increasing your risk for heart and lung disease, as well as cancer, smoking can activate enzymes that break down the elasticity of your skin, giving you a more wrinkled and pasty appearance. Hey, we won’t judge: whatever reason motivates you to quit is a good one! Remember, quitting can be very difficult, and might take a few tries. Talk to your doctor, try nicotine gum or patches, go to a support group – just don’t give up.

6. Hitting the Bottle Too Hard

caucasian woman with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.
Smoking and drinking too much can lead to health issues such as cognitive decline and loss of elasticity of your skin.

This is a tough one. We’re often told conflicting things, like “drink at least one glass of red wine a day” and “stay away from alcohol completely for optimum health.” A moderate amount of alcohol (especially red wine) might have some benefits in moderation, but the real issue is that what is “moderate” changes as you age. According to the American Geriatrics Society, more than one drink a day for an older man and half of one for an older woman can be too much. Drinking too much can lead to cognitive decline, and could contribute to dangerous falls. Remember also that alcohol can interfere with certain medications, so be sure to talk to your doctor about whether it’s ok for you to indulge now and again.

7. Settling into That Groove in Your Couch

Listen up, couch potatoes! Think you should slow down as you age to prevent injury and accidents? Definitely not – in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. According to the Centers for Disease Control, physical activity can help control arthritis and maintain healthy bones, stamina, and muscle strength, all of which help prevent falls. It also reduces the risk of dying from heart disease, colon cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Not only that, but, according to a study by the National Institute on Aging, exercise might even improve your memory. How much more could you ask for as you age than staying healthy, mobile, independent and sharp?

It’s easy to add more movement into your day. The CDC recommends fitting in 150 hours a week, which you can break down into 30 minutes a day, 5 times a week, or you can try “fitness snacking,” which means scattering a few minutes of exercise throughout the day. The most important thing is to find something you enjoy: try strolling with a friend, going for a swim, taking a leisurely bike ride, or following along with an online yoga class. Even a session of dancing around the house with your sweetie counts!

Aging happens to the best of us. We can’t turn back time, and our bodies and brains are going to inevitably change – we can’t control that. But what we can control is how we approach aging, and how we treat our bodies as we get older. With a little tweaking of our daily habits, we can continue on a path to a long and healthy life.