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Health Information Discover Rush Spring 2009

Aging Immune System and Cancer

Does age affect your cancer risk? The short answer is yes. Over time the body loses its ability to fight off cancer cells.

Your body makes cancer cells every day, but your immune system gets rid of them, says Jack Olson, MD, a geriatrician at Rush University Medical Center. As you get older, though, your immune system doesn't respond as well, and your body can't get rid of cancer cells as easily.

The reason the immune system doesn't respond as well isn't 100 percent clear. There are likely several reasons, including a decrease in T cell function, Olson says. T cells are thought to play an important role in the body's defenses against the growth and spread of cancer cells.

T cells are lymphocytes, one of two kinds of small white blood cells. When exposed to a foreign substance — an antigen — T cells divide, rapidly reproducing large numbers of more T cells that are sensitized to that antigen. They secrete special chemical compounds and help B cells, another form of lymphocytes, destroy foreign protein.

Maintaining your immune system

Because immune function decreases with age, it's important to keep your immune system as healthy as possible. To do this, try the following: Get enough sleep. Skimping on sleep suppresses the immune system. Yet many people try to get by on four or five hours a night to fit more into their day. To keep your immune system strong, aim for seven to eight hours of sleep each night.

Exercise. Exercise increases the production of macrophages (cells that attack bacteria). During exercise, immune system cells circulate more quickly through the body and are more able to kill bacteria. Get at least 30 minutes of exercise four times a week to boost your immune system.

Eat a healthy diet. Some foods, such as fruits and green, leafy vegetables, are rich in antioxidants (substances that protect cells from the effects of free radicals). Free radicals are produced by exposure to things such as cigarette smoke and radiation. They can damage your DNA, weakening your immune system. The recommended daily intake for fruits and vegetables varies depending on your age, gender and how physically active you are. Visit for specific recommendations.

Reduce stress. People who are under a lot of stress get sick more often. For example, students tend to get sick around finals. To reduce stress, experiment and find out what works for you. You can try regular exercise, deep breathing, meditation, yoga or journaling. Talk to your doctor for more suggestions.

Prevent or control chronic diseases. Some diseases, such as diabetes, can weaken the immune system. That's why it's important to take steps now to prevent or control chronic disease. If you're concerned about your risk factors for diabetes or are having trouble controlling the disease, talk to your doctor.

Avoid toxins. Don't smoke, and avoid exposure to secondhand smoke and other environmental toxins, such as air pollution, whenever possible.

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Discover Rush Spring 2009
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