The Ups and Downs of Your Aging Immune System

In a few weeks, I’ll be lining up, along with about 35% of the Canadian population, to receive the flu shot. In doing so, I’ll be ignoring the bad press, the less than 50% prevention rate, and the physical discomfort to do this. Why? Because, as I grow older, I’m discovering that I can’t rely on my immune system to do the splendid job it did in the past to protect me from the millions of pathogens that come my way all fall and winter.

Up until 2 years ago, I never gave the flu a thought. Ominous suggestions that the ‘elderly’ were susceptible to illness and disease seemed at best, ageist, and at worst, insulting. I was in excellent health, I looked after myself—a weakened immune system couldn’t happen to me.

A few bouts of the cold and flu later, I’ve changed my mind, and now give in to the shot, which I know may or may not protect me. Half a loaf is better than none, I tell myself.

Science is confirming what we have always suspected, yet are reluctant to admit: Age does make you more likely to become ill, and that’s because of  something called immunosenescence.

Difficult to spell, but very specific in its meaning, immunosenescence refers to the changes that occur in the immune system with age—this means an increased risk of infections, malignancy, and autoimmune disorders.

This is an emerging field, made urgent now, due to the increasing number of people entering their senior years.

Some facts about your immune system

Our body’s defense system, what we’ve always referred to as our immune system, is a complex network of cells, tissues, and organs, which include the tonsils, the thymus, the spleen, bone marrow, and gut.

When working well, this system defends our body against the invasion of pathogens, like bacteria and viruses.

However, research indicates that for some of us, this defense system weakens with age. It simply does not work as well as it used to.

The medical community agrees that you are likely to get sick more often as you age, that you recover from injuries, infections and illnesses more slowly, and that you may not respond as well to vaccines.

This is how it works

Your body’s T cells, which attack other, illness-causing cells, are normally able to “remember” an invader from a previous illness, and defend against it. Evidently, as we age, we make fewer T cells, and the ones we have don’t communicate with each other or relate to vaccines as well.

An article in a Harvard Health Publication elaborates:

“No one knows for sure why this happens, but some scientists observe that this increased risk correlates with a decrease in T cells, possibly from the thymus atrophying with age and producing fewer T cells to fight off infection. Thymus function declines beginning at age one; whether this decrease in thymus function explains the drop in T cells or whether other changes play a role is not fully understood. Others are interested in whether the bone marrow becomes less efficient at producing the stem cells that give rise to the cells of the immune system.”

If you are concerned that you might not be able to fight the invasion of pathogens this coming flu season you, like many others, might be drawn to alternate ways of strengthening your immune system.

Vitamin manufacturers are aware of this trend, and have responded with claims that certain vitamins and supplements can enhance your immune system. There is little scientific support for these claims, since it has proven difficult to test vitamin effectiveness through controlled experiments.

Conventional medicine has been harsh in their judgement of the use of vitamins and herbal treatments. But experience does count for something. There is a reason that millions of people, and especially older people, are drawn to their use—given the right set of circumstances, they do work.

Other things you can do

1. Eat well

There’s no special diet for the immune system. But researchers do know that a varied diet full of vitamin and mineral-rich foods contribute to better health. Eat vegetables of various colors. The darker the greens, the more anti-oxidant rich they are   Vegetables that are red, yellow, and orange in color will give you much needed bio-flavinoids and vitamin C.

2. Try some Superfoods

Foods like kale, broccoli, avocados, certain mushrooms, berries and others have shown to improve older peoples’ immune system performance.

3. Go a step further:

Dietitian and author, Desiree Nielsen, has further specific suggestions (see her list below), which you might wish to add to your immune-system boosting repertoire:


This concentrated source of protein supports growth of immunoglobulin A, T cells, and macrophages, and is invaluable if you don’t eat meat.


Garlic has demonstrated antibacterial and antiviral activity in the lab. The key is to eat garlic faithfully: at least a clove a day, preferably in raw form. You can nibble on a clove of garlic in the evening, (so as not to alienate your friends!)

Sweet Potatoes

This vegetable contains beta-carotene, which the body converts into immune-builder vitamin A, which, in turn, influences levels of immune B cells and T cells.

Pumpkin Seeds

These seeds are rich in the mineral zinc, which influences the activity of immune T cells. You only need about a quarter of a cup a day.


Ginger is thought to support the immune system in two ways: one, it brings heat to the body and causes healthy sweating. Secondly, ginger is a potent anti-inflammatory and, helps support the normal functioning of the immune system. 

4. And now for an immune boosting   life-style summary:

  1. Get vaccinated.
  2. Eat a healthy, nutrient-rich diet
  3. Keep an open mind about multivitamin or herbal supplements—do your research and be willing to experiment
  4. Exercise every day
  5. Stay hydrated (8-9 glasses of fluid a day)
  6. Reduce stress and address isolation
  7. Get at least six hours of sleep each night—add a nap during the day.
  8. Consider a cleanse to remove toxins and give your immune system a better chance to fight disease. (Do lots of research first!)

Take charge of your health, especially if you think your immune system is changing. Do your own research into what your body needs. Be pro-active and avoid the damaging cycle of being sick, taking antibiotics and weakening your immune system!

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28 Responses to The Ups and Downs of Your Aging Immune System

  1. hillsmom says:

    Good thoughts and suggestions. I’ll continue to get the flu shot although I’m now retired. Here at the “wrinkle farm”, I’m still around other people with sneezes and coughs such as I was exposed to while working. “And so it goes…”
    Hmmm…8 to 9 glasses of fluid a day…does wine count? 😎

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      If it was up to me, it would—although I seldom drink wine these days. Alcohol of any sort gives me headaches now, and I don’t enjoy that!

  2. I’ve been doing all of that for quite a while already. And I’ve never been happier in my life.

  3. Hi Diane! I’m still in the camp that is avoiding the flu shots for the time being. But I do agree that there will likely come a time when it is prudent. And YES to all your other suggestions. The sooner we get started the better! ~Kathy

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I think you have years to go before you have to worry, Kathy! Meanwhile, enjoy your good health and your youth!

  4. Lynne Spreen says:

    Diane, I hate the thought that certain body functions (like the manufacture of Tcells) slow as we age, but I got a graphic representation of that with Mom. She broke her leg in her mid 80s, and the bone never regenerated. The surgeon put in a rod, but the bone itself never grew replacement material. Never. And she was healthy and well-nourished. Some things just slow down, stop, leak, sag, the gamut. Unfortunately. A bit of a silver lining is that once you’ve had a cold, you’re immune to that particular strain for life. Thanks for all the good info.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I always appreciate your thoughts, Lynne. And thanks for appreciating my efforts in this blog. Nice to have your support!

  5. Anne Mahoney says:

    Thanks so much for this information and good advice. I’m a big fan of flu shots, have been getting them every year for many years (am on the highly recommended list for shots because of life long asthma and weakened lungs), and have survived most winters without illness. I just turned 80 so I take your information about reduced immunity and how to keep it as high as possible very seriously. The inconvenience of the flu shot is minimal,and even if you are in the percentage that gets the flu, in spite of getting the shot, you usually get a much more mild case of the disease.
    I have subscribed to your website and really enjoy your useful and interesting posts on aging. Thanks.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Thanks Anne, and welcome! I agree that the flu shot is beneficial, even if you do get the flu. Congratulations on becoming 80!

  6. if you’ve over 65 here, your flu’ jab is free – I also got the flu’ jab free for many years due to respiratory health issues…

    yes there might be a few side effects, but nothing like succumbing to the flu’ and spending weeks or more sick…

    I respect your list and I do many of the items on it regularly but another thing I do – all year round (Not just winter bugs) is be mindful of me and be as happy as possible…

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Cathy, thanks for adding that—I realize I missed it entirely. Your state of mind is incredibly important to your health, as I know I have mentioned on other posts. Thanks for reminding me!

  7. I too get an annual flu shot, and agree that less than perfect is better than nothing at all.

    Getting old isn’t for sissies, as they say, it requires a lot of discipline, there are so many things to balance. Old people are amazing really, their spirit in particular is inspirational. Ahem, I say they, but it is really we.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Hi Maggie. I enjoy your blog, (Maggie Turner Page by Page), and read it every time you post. You are a wealth of information and inspirational thought. Thanks!

  8. May says:

    Hi Maggie

    I also get a shot every year now. Each year tells me a new ” your getting older” story. Like an old car I am trying to keep the rust down and the bumper from falling off. Thank you for the wonderful posts.

  9. Thanks for this continuation of the topic of immunosenescence. Love that word. I applaud your research and your ability to summarize it in clear, easily understandable sentences. Thank you!

    I have obtained a flu shot every year since the mid-1980s. At first I did it because as a professor, I was exposed to hundreds of university students every day, and they were notorious for not taking care of themselves and for bringing their illnesses to class. After I turned 50, I did it because my doctor said to. As a result, (knock on wood) I have NEVER had the flu. Every couple of years I get a cold, yes, but never the flu. Before the mid-1990s, I used to get pneumonia every year, but since I got the anti-pneumonia shot about 1995, I have not contracted pneumonia. I’m no longer exposed to hundreds of university students, but I do frequent a senior citizen center, so there are plenty of opportunities for me to be exposed to germs–yet I don’t get sick very often. Maybe once a year. I heartily endorse your list of recommendations for good health for older people like us. But I draw the line at eating raw garlic.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Thanks for your generous praise, Dr. Rin! People like you save the health system bags of money! So glad you are so well! About the garlic…you can buy odorless capsules. But I think the real bulb is more effective!

  10. Pat Skene says:

    I don’t get the flu shot because I have an illness with an overactive immune system and doc says the shot could trigger a flare. I haven’t had a cold or flu in years. But I thought your post was excellent and very helpful tips. Thanks.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      It’s a good idea to be so informed about your own body, Pat! So many people are not. Good reason not to get the shot!

  11. Rummuser says:

    I am one of the people who will go to a doctor only when something goes wrong. I have never gone for anything preventive. I have survived so far.

  12. KathrinS says:

    I’ve never had a flu shot, although I’ve had lots of other shots necessary for international travel. Not sure I need it at this point, but it’s definitely useful, even if it’s no guarantee.

    Kathrin —

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I took a quick peek at your site—looks interesting! You will know when you need a flu shot, but I suspect that day is a long way off!

  13. DJan says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful and insightful post. I always get a flu shot and haven’t had it in decades. At my advanced age (74), I do know my immune system is not what it once was, but neither is the rest of my body! I eat right and take my vitamins and get a flu shot every year. 🙂

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Looking after ourselves as we age pays off in spades! You didn’t mention exercise, but I hope you do a bit every day!

  14. aunt beulah says:

    Once again, Diane, a necessary post: one that bears news we might not want to believe, but must. I try to follow the summary suggestions but suffer relapses from time, usually related to sugar. I have noticed my healing time increasing, but, so far, the healing eventually happens.. I’ve had a flu shot every year going back to when I taught elementary school and have never had the flu, reason enough for me to keep getting it. My husband is not so keen on them, but when I ask why not, he never musters a reasonable response.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Teaching elementary school makes you especially vulnerable, since those kids are germ-bearing organisms! So glad you made it without getting the flu! I can’t say I was so lucky, but then, I used to refuse the shot in those days. So now, I have finally given in!

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