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Immune offense

Why COVID-19 seems to prefer those who are older.

Article Author: Johnny Woodhouse

Article Date:

digital rendering of lungs with virus surrounding them
When pathogens invades the body, the force-field-like immune system mounts a quick response.

When a pathogen enters the body, the powerful human immune system mounts a quick response.

Think of it as a force field that can repel foreign invaders.

But as we age, our immune defense, as a whole, gets weaker.

That may explain why more elderly adults are succumbing to COVID-19 than any other age bracket.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults 65 years and older and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions are at higher risk for the illness.

"The chance that a COVID-19 patient would develop symptoms severe enough to require hospitalization, especially for respiratory support, rises sharply with age," a study by researchers at Imperial College London recently reported in The Lancet medical journal.

Researchers are also studying why some older adults mount a stronger immune response than others.

"When we are really young, we routinely mount a fever response to combat infections," said Raphael Tito Balbino, MD, a board-certified geriatrician with Baptist AgeWell Center for Health. "As we age, even though we may have serious infections, often there is no fever response from the body.

"One of the reasons the virus seems to spare healthier adults is that it is likely not as strong of an offending agent and a very strong immune system can handle it fairly easily.

"Whereas, for the older, chronically ill or immune-compromised have a hard time fighting it and more often succumb to it."

Even if one viral particle gets into the airways of an older adult, it may be enough for the virus to survive and grow there because of the decline in immune function," said Dr. Balbino, who is fellowship-trained in geriatric medicine.

"For younger individuals, if they have a very strong immune system, their bodies may be able to kill the virus even if more particles get in," he added.

Boosting your immune system

Studies have shown that eating a low-fat diet and maintaining a healthy weight can help boost the immune system.

Getting the right amount of vitamin D, either through direct sunlight exposure or vitamin supplements, is another way to improve the immune system and reduce the risk of viral infections, according to Dr. Balbino.

"Vitamin C supplements and other antioxidants can help support the body's natural immune responses. There are various other natural supplements out there that have reported benefits in boosting the immune system, and we're beginning to learn more about the use of probiotics in this area," said Dr. Balbino.

"Overall, what everyone should keep in mind is good sleep hygiene, hydration and exercise go a long way in ensuring a proper functioning immune system."

At Baptist Health, we want to help keep our community informed about COVID-19. For more information, visit baptistjax.com/covid19.

Baptist Health physicians are here for you during this time and can diagnose, treat and prescribe medications virtually. Request an online doctor appointment here.

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