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The most powerful line of defense against foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses is a healthy, well-functioning immune system. A strong immune system helps protects against infection but it also destroys cancer cells before they have a chance to gain a foothold. The immune system has multiple components and pathways that work together to keep foreign invaders from causing disease.

Just as the rest of your body ages, so does your immune system. Aging of the immune system is called “immunosenescence.” Experts believe immunosenescence partially explains why older people are more susceptible to certain health problems and more likely to succumb to infectious diseases like influenza and pneumonia. In fact, influenza is the most common cause of death due to infectious disease in people over the age of 65.

In general, people are most susceptible to infection and to dying of an infection at the extremes of age – very young and very old. In the very young, the problem is an immune system that isn’t fully developed. In older people, an immune system that’s less robust is the culprit. An aging immune system has a reduced ability to recognize foreign invaders, like viruses, bacteria or cancer cells, and less ability to keep them in check. Plus, with aging, the immune system reacts more slowly to threats.

The Role of the Thymus Gland and T Cells

One theory as to why immunosenescense occurs relates to a small gland located behind the sternum called the thymus gland. The thymus gland, composed of lymphoid tissue, is where immune cells that recognize foreign invaders are produced and undergo maturation. The thymus gland is largest and most robust during puberty. It slowly decreases in size throughout life as lymphoid tissue is replaced with fat. In the elderly, the thymus gland is mostly composed of fatty tissue. Along with a decrease in the size of the thymus comes a reduction in circulating T cells that protect against foreign invaders.

Aging also takes a toll on the innate immune system, the portion of the immune system that acts as the first line of defense against viruses and bacteria. These cells, including macrophages, neutrophils and dendritic cells, act as “first responders” when a threat enters the body. With age, these cells become slower to react to threat. In some cases they become dysregulated. Dysregulation can lead to damaging, low-grade inflammation. This type of low-grade  inflammation is linked with a variety of diseases of aging including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

A Healthy Immune System: Beyond Preventing Infection

Most people know a healthy immune system protects them against viruses and bacteria. Fewer people recognize the role the immune system plays in cancer prevention. It’s the immune system’s job to quickly and decisively eradicate tumor cells that pop up and keep them from spreading to other tissues. One type of immune cells that plays an essential role in doing this is the NK or natural killer cell. Activity of NK cells declines with age and is lower in elderly individuals.

Another health problem that becomes more common with age is autoimmune disease, a condition where the immune system attacks healthy tissues. Autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system becomes less able to distinguish “self” cells and tissues from that of a foreign invader. As a result, it attacks normal cells and tissues. Autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease and multiple sclerosis, are on the rise. According to Medical News Today, the incidence of autoimmune disease increased by 23% between 2001 and 2009.

The Bottom Line?

The immune system is important for health and its ability to protect against disease declines with age. It becomes less efficient at reacting to foreign pathogens and keeping cancer cells in check. In other cases, it over-reacts and triggers inflammation or an autoimmune disease. That’s why it’s important to make immune health a priority as we age.

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Alternative Health Concepts

References:

Endocrine Web. “An Overview of the Thymus”

Medscape.com. “The Immune System in the Elderly: A Fair Fight Against Diseases?”

Current Opinion in Immunology. Volume 22, Issue 4, August 2010, Pages 507-513.

Medical News Today. “Autoimmune Disease Rates Increasing”