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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

Older adults can help guard their immune system with healthy lifestyle

STILLWATER, Okla. – Most people probably are not overly familiar with the sprawling network of tissues and organs that make up the body’s immune system, much less the very important job that system does.

The immune system is basically the body’s defense against bacterial and viral infections, inflammatory conditions like arthritis and other health issues such as chronic diseases and cancer.

“As we age, our immune system’s function tends to decline while the risk of infections, inflammatory conditions and cancer tend to rise,” said Janice Hermann, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist.

The immune system includes the thymus gland, bone marrow, spleen, tonsils, adenoids, lymph nodes, lymphoid tissue and lymphatic vessels.

Older adults can guard and maintain their immune health by getting enough physical activity, watching their diet and following safe food handling practices.

Lacking many nutrients in the diet can negatively affect the way the immune system works. Deficiencies in nutrients such as calories, protein, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin C, zinc, copper, selenium, magnesium and iron can impair immune function.

“To make sure they get enough important nutrients, older adults should especially concentrate on consuming lots of nutrient-rich foods,” Hermann said.

Follow the recommendations of the My Plate Daily Checklist for developing a healthy diet.

Since the immune system’s function tends to decline with age, the risk of foodborne illness rises.

As a result, it is especially important for older adults to closely follow safe food handling practices to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.

Some safe food handling practices include washing your hands; thoroughly rinsing vegetables and fruits; avoiding cross-contamination of raw, cooked and ready-to-eat foods; cooking foods to safe internal temperatures; and safely storing foods.

Additional information on safe food handling practices may be found at

For more information on age-related changes to the immune system, contact the county Extension office and download the free OSU Fact Sheet T-3215, “Journey through Health: Immune System.”


Leilana McKindra
Communications Specialist
Agricultural Communications Services
158 Agriculture North
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74078
Phone: 405-744-6792
Fax: 405-744-5739

Oklahoma State University - Stillwater, OK 74078