Your immune system
Jill Hillhouse, RNCP, ROHP
Immunosenescence is the study of the decline of the immune system as we age. Boost your immunity with our 10 tips for a strong immune system.
A healthy immune system is vital for our survival against the daily onslaught of foreign organisms and pathogens. As we age, this system declines, leaving us with higher incidences of infections, autoimmune diseases, and cancers.
An understanding of our immune system and how our daily habits affect it may help us find our own fountain of youth.
The immune breakdown process
The study of immunosenescence, defined as the decline of the immune system with age, is complex and not yet completely understood, but it is evident that both the innate and the adaptive parts of our immune system become altered.
Innate immunity includes our natural physical and physiological barriers to pathogens. Adaptive immunity is developed as a result of prior exposure to pathogens and their antigens, which causes activation of a number of specialized immune cells.
With increasing age, the lymphocytes we produce from innate or adaptive immunity to combat infection become less vigorous and less effective. Our antibodies are fewer in number and the duration of their response is shorter.
Results of reduced immunity
As a result we may have less immunity to infections or viruses such as the flu. The immune system may also become less tolerant of the body’s own cells and produce auto antibodies that attack the body itself, leading to autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
With aging there is also generally low-grade chronic inflammation, a decrease in the size of the thymus gland where we develop the important immune T-cells, as well as changes in our chromosomes. Ongoing investigation and study into these various aspects of immunosenescence is yielding promising information for those of us seeking a long, healthy lifespan.
The long and short of telomeres
Telomeres are DNA caps at the ends of chromosomes that help protect our genetic information. The length of telomeres is proposed as an indicator of biological aging because telomeres get shorter each time cells divide. When a critical shortness is reached where cells appear to stop dividing, they stop growing and die.
There is evidence that higher rates of oxidative stress and chronic inflammation may speed this attrition rate. A 2009 study presented in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women who regularly used multivitamins had longer telomere lengths than women who did not.
Other nutrients may also affect telomere length, as indicated in another study where researchers measured the serum vitamin D concentrations in 2,160 women aged 18 to 79. The researchers found that although increased age was associated with shorter telomere length, higher serum vitamin D concentrations were significantly associated with longer telomere length—even after adjusting for age. The difference in telomere length between the groups with the highest and the lowest levels of vitamin D was estimated to be the equivalent of five years of cellular aging.
Support your system
While aging is inevitable, there are definitely measures you can take to support your immune health and possibly slow immune decline.
10 tips for a strong immune system