Mr. Mukherjee, 74 years old, is a retired banker and quite popular in his neighbourhood. He starts his day with a morning walk sharp at 5am, a cup of tea at 6am, followed by an hour of gardening and breakfast at 8. The rest of the day is for family and friends – spending time with his grandchildren, helping out with household activities and evening adda with friends. A strict believer in maintaining a disciplined life, he has never touched a cigarette in his life, nor has he deviated much from his daily routine. When people asked him about his secret to good health, he would smirk and says, “My immunity is better than yours”! Last winter when he came down with a bad bout of influenza, no one was more surprised than him.
It’s true that a healthy lifestyle can bolster our immune system and keep it strong for longer years, however, there are some factors that are beyond our control. As we age, so does our immune system. Our immune function gradually decreases, and this process is termed as immunosenescence. Just like our walking or running speed, the body’s ability to fight off infections also slows down with age. Due to this, older people are more prone to colds and other infections than children. With age, it not only takes longer for the body to detect an infection but also to deal with it.
Factors responsible for immune system ageing:
- T-cells within the thymus (one of the organs of the immune system) is where the body adapts specifically to foreign invaders. Thymus starts to shrink with age and weakens the immune system.
- White blood cells that ingest antigens, called macrophages, no longer work with the speed they used to.
- The immune system becomes less tolerant of the body’s own cells, leading to autoimmune disorders like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and scleroderma.
- The number of antibodies produced is lesser in older people, making them prone to diseases like pneumonia, influenza, endocarditis and tetanus.
- Diabetes with increasing age also leads to decreased immunity.
- Besides these, external factors like smoking, alcohol and poor nutrition can fasten the process of ageing.
Tips to strengthen your immune system:
- Consult your doctor and get vaccinated. Vaccinations reduce the risk of infection by stimulating the immune system to create antibodies.
- Eat a healthy and well-balanced diet to keep your immune system strong. Reduce your intake of sugar, fat and processed foods and include green leafy vegetables and fruits in your diet. Make sure you are getting enough of vitamins and antioxidants from your diet.
- Don’t get inactive. Avoid strenuous activities as they may seem difficult with age but aim for at least 30 minutes of regular physical activity. Opt for low impact workouts like yoga, biking, walking etc. Physical activity improves blood circulation and also has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.
- Keep your stress levels in control. Chronic stress drastically impacts your immune system response, making you susceptible to viruses and illnesses. Engage in relaxing activities to keep your stress levels in check.
- Sleep deprivation reduces immune function. With age, sleep becomes more important to improve brain function, memory and concentration. Try to stick to a regular bedtime routine and limit daytime naps. Consult your doctor if you have trouble sleeping to identify any underlying cause.
- Maintain a healthy weight to keep your immune system strong.
- Quit smoking to improve your immune function
Some immunizations are important as we grow older. Please consult your doctor to know more about appropriate vaccines.