How ageing weakens your immune system

Senior Caucasian woman blowing her nose
Senior Caucasian woman blowing her nose

Now you're older you catch every cold going and it takes longer to recover than it did when you were young. So what's going on? The body's immune system tends to get weaker as we get older. The good news is that there are things you can do to improve it, whatever your age.

See also: Eight foods to help ward off colds and flu

See also:People with poor sleep 'four times more likely to catch a cold'

What's happening with your immune system?
The immune system is complex network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to fight off infection. Scientists aren't sure why the immune system tends to get weaker as we age.

However, they know that most older people don't respond as well to vaccines (with the exception of the shingles vaccines). This is because we make fewer T cells – which attack other, illness-causing cells – and vaccines require new T cells in order to work.

Older people not only have fewer immune cells, the ones they have don't communicate with each other as efficiently. As a result, they can take longer to react to germs and bacteria.

Because the body produces fewer immune cells, including white blood cells, it can take longer for the body to heal following injuries, infection and illness when we're older.

Immunity drops off at different ages for different people, and there's no one test your doctor can perform to check the strength of your body's defences. However, if you notice that you're getting sick more often, frequently feel under the weather or take much longer to heal, see your GP.

Tips to strengthen your immune system...

1. Keep other conditions under control
The healthier you are generally, the stronger your immune system will be. If you're suffering from a condition, such as diabetes or arthritis, make sure you manage your condition and see your doctor for regular check-ups. Ensuring that existing medical conditions are well-controlled will take less of toll on your immune system.

2. Get enough sleep
Studies have found a link between sleep deprivation and lower immunity, even in young, healthy individuals. Sleep problems are more common as we age, and many people find they don't need as much shut-eye as they did in their younger years. Aim to get seven or eight hours of sleep a night and see your doctor if snoring is a problem for you or you feel the tired the next day, even after a good night's sleep in case of sleep apnoea.

3. Don't get stressed
Stress can weaken your immune response over time. If you're anxious or constantly worried, it takes a toll on your body. Not only that, it can have an effect on the quality of your sleep, which has a knock-on effect on your immune system. Share your worries with a trusted friend, family member, or phone an advice helpline. Listening to a relaxing meditation CD, doing simple stretches and performing deep breathing exercises can help.

4. Avoid sick people
When you're older it's important to limit your exposure to germs and infection. Avoid people who have a cold or the flu, and remember to wash your hands frequently.

5. Stay up to date with vaccines
They may not work as effectively now you're older, but getting vaccinated is an important way to avoid illnesses. When you're older, getting the flu is more likely to lead to serious complications, such as pneumonia, so it's important to get the flu vaccine each year. If you're not sure if you're up to date with various vaccines, ask your nurse or doctor to check.

6. Exercise
Regular exercise helps to keep your body fit, which makes your immune system stronger. Studies show that keeping active can help cells move more freely, which helps them do their job properly. Walking, swimming and cycling are all great options. If you don't fancy going outside, invest in an exercise bike and pedal away as you watch your favourite TV shows or listen to the radio.

7. Eat healthy
Eating a varied, balanced diet will help to boost your immunity. Research shows that eating lots of different fruit and vegetables will help to keep your immune system functioning at its best. If you're not sure if you're getting enough vitamins and minerals, consider taking a supplement designed for older people. Eating a healthy diet will also help to keep your weight in check, which is important as carrying extra weight puts stress on the body, making it harder for your immune system to function as it should.

8. Quit smoking
If you're a smoker, quitting is one of the best things you can do for your immune system. Smoking weakens your body's immune response, making you more susceptible to illness and infection. There are lots of support options now available – from medication to nicotine patches and counselling – so speak to your GP for advice.