Hereís why it is alright to feel your age

Friday 22nd June 2012

  • Discover why age and immunity are very closely related
  • What can you do to boost your immune system?
  • Should you be going to see your GP every time you feel ill?

Letís face it, we arenít getting any younger.

Not a ground breaking fact to start a letter with, but the recent Legionella outbreak in Edinburgh got me thinking about age and health.

One of the interesting things that I heard quoted by a Scottish health official on the TV the other night was something along the lines that they werenít worried about the kids going to school near the infected area as the young were not at risk.

This assertion is borne out of statistical evidence from the World Health Organisation(1) which says that men, over the age of 50 with a history of respiratory (often smoking related) problems, are the most at risk group.

Thankfully Legionnaires Disease, the form of pneumonia which the Legionella bacterium causes, is a relatively uncommon condition.

But why should it target a specific age group?

Generally the logic should be that as we age our bodies will develop greater levels of resistance to infections Ė after all chances are we have come across them before.

However, immunity isnít that simple and it seems that the reverse is in fact the case.

Even more surprisingly age and immunity are very strongly inter-related, with the theory being that the rate of ageing is linked to how active our immune system is.

As children we are pre-loaded with antibodies from our mums, especially through being breastfed, but we also have a very powerful and active production system to create new ones as we need them.

Newborn babies have a large structure in their necks called the thymus gland which is responsible for producing and maturing specialised cells of the immune system called T-Cells.

T-Cells act to fight off infections and, along with other white blood cells, direct our immune response.

By the age of two the Thymus has reached its maximum size and then begins to shrink, so that it has disappeared by the time we reach our late teens.

The consequence of this means that we arenít so quick to develop our immunity as we get older, basically because we donít have the ability to make large numbers of T-cells without the thymus.

Factors which affect immunity

There are three basic factors which affect our immune response;

1) Nutrition. Malnutrition severely depletes our bodyís ability to generate an immune response, but even before this extreme a failure to maintain a good diet directly impacts on the bodyís capability in the face of an infection.

Itís not all about the balance of carbohydrates and proteins though, this is where the need for trace elements becomes important, especially zinc, iron and selenium. Also required are compounds such as folate.

Foods that are rich in these elements include beans and peas, liver and sunflower seeds.

2) Disease, stress & trauma. If the body is already under attack from an infection, or has its energy resources being used up by stress, then it stands to reason that it will not be able to work as well.

Therefore if we arenít getting enough sleep, or are laid low by a chronic condition or even find ourselves recovering from a nasty cut, then we are placing a heavy load on our bodies, which leaves us open to further infection.

3) Age. As Iíve already pointed out, the lack of a thymus gland stops us being able to react as quickly as we once did, however ageing also means we begin to see the effects of the life lived thus far.

Past sins catch us up, the odd drink-fuelled nights as a student, the impact of smoking in our twenties and a catalogue of coughs, colds and flu leave us with a health balance that we need to work hard to address.

What we can ill afford is to put our bodies under further strain by not eating properly, not sleeping or leaving underlying health problems unresolved.

Are you guilty of under-reporting health problems?

The last point in the list above brings me to the final thought for today Ė are you going to see your GP enough?

This might seem a strange question to be asking you, especially when we regularly look at how we can deal with health issues without resorting to the GPís surgery.

I mention it because of a short article in The Independent which said that the over sixties put off going to the doctors because they fear being labelled as hypochondriacs.

Apparently this follows a Department of Health survey which showed that 31 per cent of people over sixties donít go to their GP as they think their problems will go away.

This may well be the gloss that the DoH want to put on it, but I suspect the truth is somewhat different.

Maybe the reason folk donít go to their GP is because:

a) Itís virtually impossible to get an appointment, and certainly not with the GP you want to see.

b) When you do get to see them they are so rushed that they immediately reach for the prescription pad rather than take any time to discuss options with you

c) So many of the current drugs of choice are being reported with severe side effects.

Far from not wanting to deal with health matters it is about the inability to be seen and treated in a fair and reasonable way.

You can bet that anyone in Edinburgh who develops a cough will present at their local surgery, just as much as anyone would go with a rash or pain across their chest.

However, what is the point of going to report a sore shoulder, or a permanent ache in the lower back if the only response is going to be strong anti-inflammatories?

As we age we know our bodies cope less well with fighting off infections and dealing with conditions, but do you know what I reckon?

Many of us know a thing or two about our own bodies.

We are also capable of discovering good, effective and natural ways to look after ourselves without presenting in a packed, stuffy and germ-laden GP waiting room.

Thank you very much!

Yours, as always


(1)World Health Organisation;













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