The main characteristic of an aging immune system when compared to a younger one, is that the elderly produce fewer cells needed to fight disease. These include killer cells and white blood cells, both of which are necessary to combat illnesses. The cells that remain may become more sluggish and slower to respond to diseases. This leads to older individuals often having compromised immunities, making them more susceptible to certain diseases.
Elderly individuals have the same immune functions as younger people, but theirs work a little slower. The exact amount their immunities slow down will depend on many factors, including each person’s diet, exercise levels, and how strong his or her immune system was to begin with. Those who live healthy lifestyles in their youth are more likely to have stronger immune systems when they get older.
The human immune system is composed of many cells. White blood cells find invaders in the body and alert for the production of antibodies. These are markers that attach to viruses and bacteria to let additional cells, called killer cells, know that they should be destroyed. White blood cells also begin replicating quickly when an intruder is detected so that more antibodies and killer cells can be alerted and created. This is why white blood cell count is unusually high in those who have an infection.
In most individuals, the characteristics of an aging immune system involve a slowed production of cells. This leads to a lessened immune response since there aren’t as many white blood cells around to alert for the production of antibodies. Because of this, the immune system is slower to respond to infections. In some cases, this allows infections or illnesses that are not serious in young adults to become more serious in the elderly. For instance, they have a much higher risk of complications and hospitalization due to influenza.
There are some ways to offset the disadvantages of the aging immune system. Some vaccinations have been shown to increase the number of white blood cells in older people. Others are designed to help the elderly create antibodies, even if they are created more slowly, against common diseases. This gives them a head start in building strong immunities in the event that they come in contact with the real virus.
Like with young people, elderly people can often reverse the effects of an aging immune system by eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise. Although they may not be able to return their immunities to their former strength, they can help their bodies fight infections more effectively. This helps prevent serious complications in the event of illness.