Nearly every piece of health and medical advice comes with an extra special message for seniors. Take cold and flu season, for example. Once the leaves start to turn, older adults are inundated with appeals to get their flu shot, and with good reason. The leading cause of death for people over 65 worldwide is respiratory infections, influenza and pneumonia, which makes a convincing argument for prevention via a simple, inexpensive vaccine. What makes this demographic particularly vulnerable to infection and disease is not their advanced age, but their waning immune system.
With age, the immune system — the body’s arsenal against disease-causing germs and bacteria — grows weary. “Its response time becomes sluggish and the number of immune cells diminishes,” says internal medicine physician Dr. Phillip Walker. “Older adults are also at higher risk for developing autoimmune disorders, which occur when the immune system decides your healthy cells are the enemy, and begins attacking them.”
The good news is that practicing healthy living habits can boost your immune system. Follow these 10 common sense lifestyle tips to give your immune system a shot in the arm:
1. Get the shot!
Seniors who get the flu vaccine have significantly lower rates of sickness and death from the flu. It’s readily available through your physician, pharmacy and even some big box stores, and the rumors that you’ll contract the flu from getting the shot are just that — rumors.
2. Eat right.
Older adults typically eat a smaller amount and limited variety of foods. Fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C and E, beta-carotene and zinc are essential to good health. It’s also important to limit sugars and fats and integrate whole grains and lean proteins in your daily diet.
3. Get moving.
Physical activity promotes circulation and heart health while relaxing the body and mind. Walking, bicycling, tai-chi and other forms of low-impact exercise help boost the immune system.
4. Put stress in its place.
There is a strong correlation between stress and many illnesses, including digestive issues and heart disease. Stress and anxiety can suppress the immune system, so learn stress management techniques such as yoga and meditation. Social interaction is also a great stress reliever, so make it a priority to spend time with friends and family.
5. Catch some zzz’s.
A good night’s sleep is one of the top natural immune system boosters. Deep, restful sleep equips the body to respond better to stress and inflammation.
6. Wash up.
Hand washing is the single most important healthy habit for preventing the spread of viruses through germs and bacteria. Cover your coughs and sneezes with the inside of your elbow to prevent the airborne particles from infecting those around you.
7. Stay upbeat.
Keeping a happy, healthy outlook on life boosts endorphins, the feel-good hormones. Seniors who engage in pleasurable hobbies that challenge the brain and maintain an active social life are more likely to stay positive and healthy.
8. Super-ize your diet.
Adding super foods like kale, broccoli, avocados and berries to your diet will improve your immune system performance. An added bonus: They also support cognitive function and help stave off Alzheimer’s disease.
Multivitamins and herbal supplements like echinacea, ginseng and probiotics increase your intake of nutrients and help fight infection. Always check with your doctor before adding these to your daily regimen.
10. Stay hydrated.
Although you’re not as apt to feel thirsty as often as you might have in years past, older adults should drink a minimum of 8 to 9 glasses of water every day to help keep mucous membranes moist and lower the chance of flu and colds.