Your immune system is the army of cells that protects you against illness. Without a competent immune system, you run the risk of falling victim to every bacteria and virus that manages to penetrate your skin and mucous membranes. A healthy immune system even helps defend you against cancer cells. In fact, almost every acute and chronic disease in humans relates somehow to the immune system.
Unfortunately, your immune system ages along with the rest of your body. The times in life when your immune system is LEAST able to protect you against illness is when you’re an infant and when you enter the later years of life. As immune function weakens with age, the risk of infection goes up. For example, pneumonia and influenza is a common cause of death in people over the age of 65. That’s why doctors recommend that seniors get a pneumonia vaccine and a yearly influenza vaccine as well. So, what is this entity we call the immune system?
Your Immune System is Multi-Faceted
A variety of cells is involved in the immune response, some of which produce protective proteins called antibodies. These antibodies bind to the “bad guys,” bacteria and viruses and mark them for destruction. In response, other cells, called macrophages come along and gobble them up. You also have other immune cells called T-cells and natural killer cells that directly target pathogens. We won’t go into detail about how each cell works but instead give you an overview of what can go wrong.
One way in which your immune system ages is it becomes more sluggish in responding to a pathogen, like a bacteria, virus, or parasite. Instead of the swift response you enjoyed when you were younger, immune cells are slow-moving and not as quick to respond to a threat. Plus, studies show that later in life the various components of the immune system don’t communicate with each other as well as they did earlier in life.
The Threat of Inflammation
Not only does your immune system become less responsive to pathogens later in life, it also has a tendency to “overreact,” not against specific pathogens, but against normal tissue. This is what we know of as inflammation. In fact, there’s a term for this type of damaging upregulation of the immune system associated with aging, it’s called “inflammaging.”
Inflammaging is marked by the release of chemicals called cytokines that cause tissue damage and inflammation. Unfortunately, this uncontrolled tissue destruction by the immune system is linked with a number of diseases associated with aging, including heart disease and dementia. At the same time, immune system aging also increases the risk of infection since immune cells don’t respond as well to threats. Plus, immune cells become less skilled at communicating with each other as they age. So, you have a higher risk from chronic diseases, like heart disease as well as infection.
Why does inflammaging not cause problems for everyone? People