Immunological Effects of Aging

The immune system is nothing short of a massive army at the ready, defending the body 24 hours a day. A sophisticated network of cells and organs stationed around the body protects you from invaders such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites.

This network produces and houses the materials to fend off any threat to good health, including the cell production gone haywire that can evolve into a cancerous tumor. What the immune system can't repel, it seeks out and destroys.

If the immune system is an army, white blood cells are the enlisted men. White blood cells and the antibodies they produce are the workhorses of the immune system. They make their rounds via your bloodstream. When invaders enter the body, or when mutant cells are formed, your body mounts its defense by generating a specific antibody.

Antibodies are produced by white cells residing in your spleen and in your lymph nodes. An antibody can finish off germs or bad cells, or it can earmark them for destruction by a type of white cells called macrophages, which are responsible for engulfing and destroying unwanted cells.

Aging decreases immunity by impairing the body's production of antibodies. Fewer antibodies means a more sluggish immune system that's less responsive to foreign elements and to potential cancer cells.

There's a little-talked-about organ that scientists say may be the key to preserving immune function. It's the thymus gland, and unfortunately, it takes a hit with advancing age. When you're born, the thymus gland weighs up to about half a pound, but it shrinks to a fraction of an ounce by age 60. In short, it virtually disappears.

But we may need the thymus gland to help prevent our immune system from deteriorating. The thymus gland produces hormones that may be responsible for keeping our immune system intact, as well as stimulating and controlling the production of neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that serve as the go-betweens among nerve cells.

Time also brings with it subtle body changes that may confuse your immune system. That confusion results in the body's production of antibodies against itself, since it believes its own cells to be a threat to your well-being. In essence, aging increases the chances that the body will turn against itself and destroy its own tissues. Autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus may be the result.

In the next section, learn about how aging effects the metabolic process and your mental health.

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