Your immune system consists of special tissues (i.e. bone marrow, lymph nodes), organs (i.e. thymus gland, spleen, tonsils), and cells (lymphocytes or specialized white blood cells) and unique chemicals such as antibodies and interferon. Older adults are prone to infections and are at a much higher risk of dying from them than are younger adults. Let’s take a look at the major links between your immune system and nutrients.
There are many age-related changes in the immune system. The thymus gland shrinks. The number of lymphocytes falls, as does their function. Your body doesn’t respond as quickly or strongly to bacteria and viruses. The elderly are prone to pneumonia not only because of the impaired immune function, but also due to other factors such as certain diseases and lung changes.
So can supplements build immunity? Here’s a breakdown of several studies on the topic:
— 1992: 96 patients over 65. All types of infections were tested. Multivitamin/minerals led to 50% fewer sick days.
— 1997: 81 patients over 65. They had respiratory or urogenital infections. They took 20 mg zinc, 100 mcg selenium, 120 mg vitamin C, six mg beta-carotene, and 15 mg alpha-tocopherol. All deficiencies were quickly fixed. Both zinc and selenium succeeded in reducing infection.
— 1999: 725 patients over 65. Situation same as above. All nutritional deficiencies corrected. Fewer lung infections when taking zinc and selenium. None reduced urogenital infections.
— 2002: 652 patients over 60. They had acute lung infections and took multivitamin/minerals and 200 mg vitamin E. Unfortunately, no supplements had any effect on the infection.
— 2003: 130 patients over 65. They had flu-like infections of the lungs, gastrointestinal system, or urinary tract. A multivitamin/mineral supplement reduced the number of infections in patients with type 2 diabetes and in those with nutrient deficiencies.
— 2004: 66 patients over 65 had upper respiratory infections. They took a mix of antioxidants, zinc, selenium, and other natural substances. The result: strengthened immune system and fewer days spent with cold symptoms.
Following this, the results have been quite mixed. In one, vitamin E reduced the risk of pneumonia, and in another it reduced the number of incidences of the common cold. Others found that beta-carotene and multivitamins had no great effect on immunity.
Recently, researchers conducted a large analysis of the confusing situation and said this: “…the evidence for routine use of multivitamin and mineral supplements to reduce infections in the elderly people is weak and conflicting.” It would seem that taking these supplements may help protect you from infection and, if not, at least they are very healthy items for your body regardless. Worth a shot for older adults.
Here are the previous articles in this series:
Minerals to Know as You Grow Older
The Most Important Vitamins as You Age
As You Age, You Need More of This
This Is How Your Brain Suffers Without Vitamins