When I got the mail today and plopped the current issue of New Scientist, a British magazine, on a table, almost right away my wife started reading the cover story, "You're only as young as your immune system."
(Online version has different title, "How to fight infection by turning back your immune system's clock.")
That's the effect of the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly almost everybody is concerned about their ability to fight off the virus, especially people over 70 like my wife and me, along with those with compromised immune systems and/or underlying health conditions.
It's a good cover story. So good, and so timely, I'm sharing a PDF file so those without a New Scientist subscription can read it in full.
Download How to fight infection by turning back your immune system's clock | New Scientist
Below are some excerpts from the piece. I've focused on advice (in bold, for emphasis) on boosting our immune system that almost everybody can follow.
Sure, it may not be possible for someone to strengthen their resistance to infection in time for that to make a difference in how their body would respond to the coronavirus, but now is always an excellent time to start improving our immune health. Here's the excerpts:
WASH your hands religiously for 20 seconds, sneeze into your elbow, avoid touching your face, stay 1 metre away from all other people and, as a last resort, self-quarantine for a week with only your emergency rations for company. If you want to avoid getting the new coronavirus, all of these are a good idea. But ultimately, one of the most important things standing between you and a deadly bout of covid-19 is your immune system.
We know that the immune system gets weaker as we age – which is a key reason why those over the age of 70 are most at risk from the disease. But what is becoming clear is that when it comes to immune health, age is just a number. Some people have an immune system that is effectively significantly older or younger than they are.
“Some 60-year-olds have the immune system of a 40-year-old, some are more like an 80-year-old,” says Shai Shen-Orr, an immunologist at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. The good news is that there are some simple ways to turn back the immunological clock. Because even after the threat of this virus has passed – sooner or later another one is going to come along, and none of us is getting any younger.
...If you are younger than 60, in good health and don’t have too many bad habits, then your immune system is probably functioning well enough to keep you safe from almost any infectious disease, including coronavirus.
The bad news is that as we age, our immune systems gradually deteriorate too. This “immunosenescence” starts to affect people’s health at about 60, says Janet Lord at the University of Birmingham, UK. The older you get, the weaker your immune system becomes, and the more likely you are to get seriously ill or die because of it.
...Beyond genetics, the team found that smokers have a much older immune profile than non-smokers of the same age. It’s unknown if this is reversible. But if you don’t want to prematurely age your immune system, it would be best not to smoke.
...One key approach to keeping our immune age down relates to the fact that as we get older, some of our immune cells start to misbehave. This is especially problematic for a class of immune cells called neutrophils, the most common type of white blood cell. These form part of the innate immune system, the body’s first line of defence against infection, and are the border force of the immune system, patrolling tirelessly through the bloodstream on the lookout for harmful bacteria.
...What are these miracle drugs [that boost neutrophils]? Statins, the ordinary cholesterol-lowering drugs already taken by millions of people. Turning to real patient data from the University of Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth hospital, Lord found that people admitted to hospital with pneumonia were much less likely to die if they were already taking statins to lower their cholesterol.
Another class of immune cells that begin to misfire as we age are T-cells. These are pivotal in the adaptive immune response – the more targeted part of the system – but are blunted in two ways by immunosenescence. As with neutrophils, their internal signalling pathways go awry, and they are also inhibited by inflammaging.
But there may be a simple way to undo this damage. According to Dayong Wu, a nutritional immunologist at Tufts University in Boston, the answer is vitamin E. ...Wu recommends people over 65 routinely take 200 international units (IUs) of vitamin E. “It may help immune function. It doesn’t hurt,” he says.
...There is also a drug-free way to rejuvenate your neutrophils: exercise. In 2016, Lord and her colleagues measured exercise levels and neutrophil migration in 211 older adults.
“Those doing 10,000 steps on average had neutrophils as good as young adults,” she says. She emphasises that neutrophils aren’t antiviral so won’t prevent you catching coronavirus or help you beat it, but they will protect you from the real danger, which is pneumonia. “Usually what carries people away with these [viral] infections is secondary infections,” she says.
...Exercise has other immune-boosting effects too. “Active skeletal muscle is anti- inflammatory and stimulates macrophages,” says Lord, who goes running every day. “Skeletal muscle is a profound immunoregulatory tissue in the body and keeping it going by physical activity really will have a lot of benefits for health. Exercise benefits all ages.”
Asked what one thing she would recommend to strengthen your immune system, she says: “Increase your step count to 10,000 per day.” In the face of the new coronavirus, it is more important than ever to find ways to stay active – even in lockdown or isolation, which isn’t going to be easy.
...Vitamin D, meanwhile, appears to do the same for the innate arm of the immune system, especially among people living at latitudes where there isn’t enough winter sunlight for their skin to synthesise the molecule. A 2017 review of the evidence for taking vitamin D supplementation concluded that it prevents upper respiratory tract infections. About 1000 to 2000 IUs should be safe and beneficial, says Wu, but people shouldn’t go higher than that because big doses actually suppress T-cell function.
...A third supplement with good evidence for immune-boosting powers is zinc. “It is very effective for viral infections,” says Wu. Though he adds, “be cautious, the effective window is narrow and an overdose will suppress your immune system”.
...What you eat will also matter to your immune system – now is the time to look after your gut flora. There is good evidence that probiotics can enhance the immune system, that poor gut health is a cause of premature ageing and even that a healthy microbiome can reduce your immune age.
...Even if a fasting diet isn’t for you, simply keeping your weight down can have immune-boosting effects. According to Bonnie Blomberg at the University of Miami in Florida, being obese suppresses the immune system to a similar extent as being immunosenesced.
...None of these interventions is without sacrifice. But if you want to stay alive and well for as long as possible, looking after your immune system is a no-brainer – especially now the new coronavirus is being called the biggest threat to public health since the 1918 flu. “The age of your immune system is a critical component of your lifespan,” says Shen-Orr. “Think about what the system is supposed to do!”