The Aging Immune System and How To Deal With It

There are a variety of things that happen in the aging immune system. Like a lot of other parts of the body, some components of the immune system start to regress or deteriorate once you reach maturity. With a less effective system you become more susceptible to disease and illness. Most of this is a natural part of the aging process but some can be delayed or prevented.

The immune system is a complicated, extensive protection system that defends you against millions of bacteria, microbes, viruses, toxins and parasites that are constantly trying to invade your body. In the aging immune system some areas slow down or stop working. To understand what happens you should have some knowledge of the entire system. It is made up of several components:

  • Thymus...The thymus is an organ where T cells or lymphocytes mature after being produced in bone marrow. These are immune cells. The thymus starts to atrophy at adulthood and is only about 15% of its original size by middle age. It is essential to a growing body but seems less important as you age. In the aging immune system other parts of the system take over the work of the thymus.
  • Spleen...The spleen filters the blood searching out foreign cells and looking for red cells that need replacing. People without a spleen or with an unhealthy spleen get sick easily.
  • Lymph System...The lymph system consists of organs, ducts and nodes. It transports a fluid called lymph which is blood plasma or the liquid that makes up blood without white or red cells. The system contains immune cells called lymphocytes.
  • Bone Marrow...Bone marrow produces new blood cells, both red and white. The marrow produces all blood cells from stem cells. They are called "stem cells" because they can branch off and become many different types of cells.
  • White Blood Cells...White blood cells are probably the most important part of your immune system. The primary function of these cells, or leukocytes, is to fight infection.
  • Antibodies...Immunoglobins and gammaglobins are antibodies produced by white blood cells. They are Y-shaped proteins that each respond to a specific antigen ((bacteria, virus or toxin).
  • Complement System...There are millions of antibodies in the blood stream. There are a small number of proteins that belong to the complement system and work with antibodies. These complement system proteins are created in the liver and float freely in the blood. They cause bursting of cells and signal to phagocytes when a cell needs to be removed.
  • Hormones...There are several hormones generated by components of the immune system. These hormones are known generally as lymphokines. Lymphokines are a substance normally released by T cells in response to certain antigens. It is also known that certain hormones in the body suppress the immune system. Steroids and corticosteroids (components of adrenaline) suppress the immune system.

Can You Strengthen an Aging Immune System?

The deterioration of some components of the system, such as the thymus, cannot be slowed or prevented. Generally, however, strengthening and maintaining normal function of the system as a whole is possible. In many cases the answer lies in nutrition, exercise, life style changes and reduction of stress. Here are a few ideas.

Antioxidants...Probably the single most important thing you can do to strengthen an aging immune system is to have a diet rich in antioxidants. Free radicals are the most powerful force in destroying immune system components. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals by donating an electron and ending the chain reaction. Vitamins E and C as well as carotene (Vitamin A) are the best sources of antioxidants. All berries are excellent with blueberries the best. Colorful fruits and vegetables; green and yellow peppers, mangoes, tomatoes plus all cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, kale, brussel sprout etc. are good sources. Three or four cups of green tea a day will give you loads of antioxidants.

Stress...Stress affects the immune system in two ways; one good the other not good. In life threatening situations (fight or flight) or traumatic injury accidents the system senses health threatening invasions and brings all it's effort into the conflict, sometimes heroically. This is true even in an aging immune system. On the other hand, chronic stress such as from a job or financial or family problems seems to wear on the various components of the system. This is why sickness or inability to heal is evident among highly stressed people of any age. Stress reduction and control is essential to wellness.

Exercise... Exercise has a lot of benefits for older people, especially in strengthening the immune system. Aerobic exercise, where blood flow and heart rates are accelerated, seem to be best. Walking, bicycling, swimming and hiking all work well. Over exertion to the point of discomfort or pain, however, can have an opposite effect especially for seniors. Regular daily routines can help to assure maintaining a healthy system.

Again, diet , lifestyle changes and exercise are the three powerful ingredients of total senior wellness. A diet rich in antioxidants, a lifestyle nearly void of stress and a workable, enjoyable exercise program can assure you a healthy system.

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