As the person’s age increases, the body seems to respond in a less effective way to fight the diseases to which it is exposed. Therefore, this immune aging increases the risks of suffering from conditions.
However, the process is not entirely irreversible. Good habits and healthy lifestyles help people keep their immune systems working well into old age.
This article explains what immune aging is, why it occurs, what its consequences are, and how we can do to reverse or mitigate it. Read on to find out.
What is immune aging?
The immune system helps protect the body from foreign factors that can be harmful and cause disease. We refer to elements such as germs (bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites), the abnormal cells themselves, and allergens.
For these purposes, this system produces antibodies. Antibodies are those that destroy or neutralize harmful substances. Therefore, this is our defense against any threat or invasion.
However, the immune system does not always stay the same but changes throughout life. In the case of newborns, acquired immunity has not been fully established, for example.
Young children only have some antibodies received from the mother during pregnancy, through the placenta, or with breast milk, during lactation. However, with time and exposure to the aforementioned elements, defense mechanisms develop and improve.
The body’s immune functions begin to decline somewhat after sexual maturity. The most important changes that take place in this regard are related to stem cells. The availability of so-called T cells is also affected.
But, as you age, is when a drastic transformation occurs. The opposite of childhood happens, and it is not for the better. In general terms, immune aging could be defined as the effect of age on the immune system’s cells, whose functions are degenerating.
What is immune aging?
In this way, the immune system becomes less effective, which results in the loss of various functions, such as the following:
- Ability to distinguish what is own from what is foreign: that is, foreign bodies are not detected, or the cells themselves are considered as enemies.
- Decrease in leukocytes: in number, as well as in their ability to respond to infections.
- Macrophages slow down – they take time to kill cancer cells and bacteria.
- Antibodies lose functions: they do not respond efficiently.
Consequences of immune aging
Changes that occur with age affect the body’s immune activity. In this way, older people are more likely to suffer infections, develop cancer, and contract various diseases, such as the flu or pneumonia.
Many autoimmune diseases present more frequently in the second half of adulthood. For them to develop, different checkpoints have to fail.
Also, during old age, the body tends to heal more slowly since fewer cells allow healing. This can become a vicious cycle: as recovery is slow, the body is exposed to become ill again.
It is important to note that the response of the immune system not only weakens in old age but also that there is an imbalance in its two facets: innate immunity, which is the first line of defense against infections, and adaptive immunity, which allows the body to remember and attack particular pathogens.
Due to the loss of adaptive immunity, the body’s inactive pathogens can be reactivated. Classic examples are herpes zoster and tuberculosis.
Tips to fight immune aging
Despite the panorama we have described, it is possible to reduce the risks related to immune aging to affect us as little as possible. The onset of this process can even be delayed.
In this sense, there are several aspects that we must attend to in terms of lifestyles. They are related to the fundamental quartet: exercise, diet, habits, and emotions.
Regular physical activity
According to recent research, exercise has a determining effect on the maintenance of the immune system. From a physiological point of view, the explanation is given because muscle tissue produces proteins called myokines, which reduce inflammation and help preserve immune function.
Other studies also found evidence that active people produce more antibodies in response to vaccination compared to less active people. Also, exercise is beneficial in protecting us against infections and other chronic conditions that can weaken the systems.
And last but not least, exercise frees us from stress and worries, raising the hormones of happiness (serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin). In this way, it helps us stay in a good mood, which is important to recover from illness or avoid getting sick.
Healthy diet equals healthy immune system.
While there is no direct evidence that a healthy diet decreases immune aging, there is much to the contrary. That is, high consumption of trans fats, sugars, and refined flours contributes to diseases’ appearance. And the more we get sick, the more we deplete the body’s ability to recover.
Instead, a healthy diet includes lots of fruits and vegetables, olive oil, more fish and poultry than red meat, dairy products, little sugar, and less flour. It is related to a lower risk of obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and various cancer types.
Also, a balanced diet helps maintain an adequate weight. In older adults, accumulated fat can have a negative effect on chronic inflammation.
This factor is associated with almost all conditions of aging, from type 2 diabetes to cardiovascular disease and cancer. Chronic inflammation also plays a role in autoimmune diseases common in older adults.
Healthy habits and emotions
When we talk about healthy habits and the aforementioned exercise, we also have to include good sleep. Rest recovers us and keeps our systems active.
On the other hand, we must avoid the consumption of substances that alter our organism: alcohol, cigarettes, drugs. Even too much caffeine is harmful. Of course, this extends to work overload, worry, stress, and negative emotions.
Anything that causes an imbalance and makes us sick will affect the body’s ability to recover and heal. Or what is the same to say, it will affect the lifespan of our immune system.
Prevent aging before it arrives
We should not wait for the elderly to prevent the risks of immune aging. If we are still in youth or adulthood, we can begin to take care of the immune system from now on.
It is not difficult, and it does not cost a lot of money: exercise, eat healthy, not smoke, reduce alcohol consumption, and worry, sleep well. The long-term benefits are invaluable.