As you age, your immune system starts to weaken and becomes less efficient when responding to infections. This is why the risk of severe complications from the coronavirus outbreak is higher for older adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The good news is there are strategies the elderly can employ to give their immune systems a boost.
By incorporating a healthy, active lifestyle with healthy-living strategies, your aging loved ones can potentially strengthen their immune system health to better prevent and fight disease. Here are 10 of the key healthy-living strategies to achieve a potential immune system boost:
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Washing your hands thoroughly and often can help prevent the spread of disease-causing germs from one person to another. Be sure to lather hands with soap and scrub for at least 20 seconds before rinsing with water. The CDC recommends hand-washing:
The single best way to prevent the seasonal flu is to get vaccinated. Complications of the flu can be especially severe in older adults, but the flu vaccine may reduce their risk of flu-related illness by up to 60%, according to the CDC.
A healthy diet is essential to a strong immune system. As you age, nutritional needs and eating habits may change for a variety of reasons. But in addition to a weakened immune system, poor nutrition and/or malnutrition can also affect heart health, lead to type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer, and weaken bones and muscles.
A well-balanced diet includes a variety of vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy and a variety or protein foods. The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends including foods rich in the following nutrients to strengthen immune system health:
Regular physical activity can help older adults stay strong, independent and healthy. But did you know that exercise can also support immune health?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week. Encourage your aging loved ones to find enjoyable activities that match their fitness level. For example, a short 10-minute walk around the block may be a good way to start, or try yoga and Tai Chi for improved flexibility and a boost to mental and emotional health. The National Institute on Aging also has many sample workout videos to help older adults strengthen muscles, improve balance and get active right at home.
Managing stress is an important aspect of immune health. Studies show that chronic stress takes a toll on immune health and hinders your immune system’s ability to fight inflammation and infections.
Participating in enjoyable activities that promote relaxation, such as meditation, yoga, Tai Chi and deep breathing exercises can have positive effects on health. If your aging loved one needs additional help managing stress, cognitive behavioral therapy can be a good tool to replace negative thoughts with a more positive outlook.
Senior isolation may lead to feelings of loneliness and depression, which can compromise immune health. So find creative ways to stay connected: Call, text, or use video technology, such as FaceTime, Skype or Zoom to stay in touch while keeping your loved one safe.
Insufficient sleep may hinder your immune system’s ability to respond to infection and inflammation. Additionally, sleep disorders are linked to many chronic diseases and conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depression.
Insomnia is a common sleep disorder among older adults. If lifestyle changes, such as staying physically active, keeping a regular sleep schedule, and limiting caffeine don’t help, your loved one may need to seek medical help.
As you age, you may lose some of your sense of thirst, but adequate hydration is also key in boosting immune function. Water helps your body absorb nutrients and minerals, and flush body waste.
Drinking at least eight to nine glasses of fluid a day can help you avoid dehydration. Try offering these tips to help your aging loved one stay hydrated:
Excessive alcohol consumption can weaken your immune system, making you more vulnerable to infections. Healthy older adults should limit alcoholic beverages to no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
Smoking harms the immune system, making it more difficult for your body to fight colds, the flu and other viruses. It also increases your risk for many other health problems, including heart disease, respiratory problems, osteoporosis and type 2 diabetes.
Encourage your aging loved one to quit as soon as possible. If you need extra support, enlist the help of your doctor.
Merritt Whitely is an editor at A Place for Mom. She developed health content for seniors at Hearing Charities of America and the National Hearing Aid Project. She’s also managed multiple print publications, blogs, and social media channels for seniors as the marketing manager at Sertoma, Inc.