My semiannual immune-system collapse arrived pretty much on schedule last week, rendering me mostly useless to family and coworkers for a couple of days. It was nothing as consequential as the flu, just a general lethargy accompanied by a collection of annoying symptoms too familiar to be noteworthy.
These episodes are more disquieting than painful because they signal a weakness in the one line of defense I’ve chosen in my battle against premature mortality. Everything I do on the health front is designed to bolster an immune system that research tells me will become less effective with every passing year. When it falters, I’m left searching for clues: Am I getting enough sleep? Is work becoming too stressful? Should I be eating more blueberries?
It would be handy, of course, if it were as simple as shifting my diet or practicing yoga more than once a month. But that’s not how it works. The immune system is complicated, and research offers little in the way of consensus on how to best keep it functioning in our later years.
One study, for example, suggests that geezers ramp up their antioxidant consumption in order to support their faltering thymuses and thus delay metabolic damage caused by free radicals, while another points to a zinc deficiency that triggers an overactive immune-cell response, and yet another blames it all on the aging gut and something called “inflammaging.”
This is a conundrum made all the more timely by the fact that flu season has arrived and public-health officials have begun sounding the ritual alarms about the dangers of wandering unvaccinated through an influenza-plagued landscape. The aging immune system, it seems, plays a major role in the relative effectiveness of the flu vaccine.
Mayo Clinic researchers earlier this year discovered that people with higher levels of a certain cell-surface protein and more B cells in their blood responded more effectively to the vaccine than those without those immune-system advantages. The study, however, does not suggest how one might accumulate these proteins and B cells in an effort to make the most of that annual flu shot.
“This information is important as it allows us to understand why some people might gain better immunity against flu from having the vaccine compared to others. However, we now need to examine the relationship between these factors in more detail to ensure we fully understand how these factors are linked,” said the study’s coauthor, Gregory Poland, MD. “Ultimately, we hope that increasing our understanding of how the immune system functions at a cellular level will allow us to develop more effective vaccines, protecting the public from preventable diseases.”
Part of me is weirdly thrilled by the knowledge that Poland and his Mayo Clinic colleagues may not know much more about the aging immune system than I do, but another part of me can’t help wondering why scientists remain so steadfastly determined to improve the vaccine when recent research has shown pretty convincingly that it’s not the flu virus that kills most of us geezers. It’s our overachieving — and mysterious — immune systems.