How to Keep Your Immune System Strong at Any Age

Dr. Mike Moreno is a graduate of the University of California at Irvine and Hahnemann Medical School. Following his residency at Kaiser Permanente in Fontana, California, Dr. Mike moved to San Diego, where he now practices family medicine and serves on the board of the San Diego Chapter of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Sometimes the immune system goes awry. That happens when immune cells get confused and think healthy cells and other tissues are really the enemy. They attack perfectly healthy cells in a sort of friendly fire known as an autoimmune disease. For example, when the immune system attacks the hair follicles, the result can be complete baldness, known medically as alopecia areata. Or immune cells might attack healthy cells in your joints, causing rheumatoid arthritis.

In cases like these, the body has to get its story straight. To do that, it needs the right resources. That’s where lifestyle choices come into play—diet, exercise, stress management, and other tools. If you can fortify your immune system, you’ll likely get sick less often, potentially avoiding everything from the common cold to cancer. Less sickness means a long, healthy, and productive life… hopefully 100 happy, healthy years.

Inflammation ramps up with age. That means we’re more susceptible to heart disease, arthritis, frailty, type 2 diabetes, physical disability, and dementia, among other problems.

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Fewer antibodies. Antibodies are produced by the immune system when an antigen is spotted in the vicinity. Antigens are large molecules that sit on the surface of cells, viruses, fungi, bacteria, and some nonliving matter such as toxins, chemicals, and foreign particles. With age, the number of antibodies produced in response to an antigen diminishes, making it harder for your body to fight off infection.

Compromised immune cells. As you get older, you have to work a little harder to maintain a healthy immune system. That’s because your body naturally creates a lower number of T-cells, which also affects how your body responds to vaccines. For example, let’s say you got the flu shot this year. The reason flu shots work is because your T-cells (the ones that aren’t already programmed to fight some other invader) will grab on to that vaccine and produce an immune response in your body so that strain of the flu can’t infect you. But if you have fewer T-cells, this process doesn’t work quite as well. (Of course there are exceptions to every rule, such as the shingles vaccine, which can be very effective in older people who’ve already had the chicken pox virus when they were younger.)

One more thing: As your body’s clock ticks away, you’re probably not going to produce as many white blood cells as you did when you were a kid. Thus, your defenses are a little weaker than they once were.

Try these supplements that support your immune system:

• Zinc: 11 mg total daily for men and 8 mg total daily for women
• Vitamin C: 1,000 mg total daily
• Folic acid: 400 mcg total daily
• Ginseng: As directed

Why? Zinc, vitamin C, and folic acid all strengthen the immune system so it can better defend you against colds and all types of infections. Check the label of your multivitamin to see if the appropriate dosages are included, and if not, take them separately.

One more supplement to consider, but to use within reason, is ginseng. There have been conflicting reports over the years about its usefulness, but some of the most compelling research shows that it can be very beneficial to people suffering from chronic illnesses. As always, discuss supplements and their side effects with your doctor, but you should consider making this part of your regimen.

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