Keeping Immune System Happy Also Improves Brain Health and Cognition

One of our last great frontiers of knowledge, the human brain, is being explored like never before.

Research into the brain is leading to many insights into how our brains work, what can damage them, what leads to cognitive function decline including Alzhiemer’s and other dementias and how to prevent damage to our vital brain cells.

This trend in research is not slowing down, thank goodness for us all and especially our senior loved ones, who are aging quickly and leading us to become family caregivers perhaps sooner than we expected or planned.

We try to bring you new information and strategies to stay healthy for your senior loved ones and you too. We have recently heard of another new study that may be shining a light on an area yet studied that can impact all of our health.

Recent Brain Research

A new study published in the Journal of Science is exploring how our brains age. This area of science still offers more questions than answers. Scientists Professor Michal Schwartz and Dr. Ido Amit have been working to uncover the mystery.

They believe that they have found a connection that shows how “cognitive decline over the years may be connected not only to one’s chronological age but also to one’s immunological age – that is, changes in immune function over time might contribute to changes in brain function.”

Remembering our basic anatomy and science classes (you do, right?), we will recall that there is a blood-brain barrier that protects our brains from damage by certain by-products and cells produced by our own bodies, including what we thought were blood-borne immune cells. The researchers found evidence of a ‘signature’ that might be the connection between cognition and aging. They hope that their new data will help to produce new treatments to slow or even reverse cognitive loss in older people.

Researchers found that our immune systems play an important role both in healing the brain after injury and in maintaining the brain’s normal functioning.

Immune and brain interactions thought to be barred from the brain are actually able to cross the barrier in all four ventricles. This connection seems to stimulate the generation of new brain cells. A protein interferon beta was found to have a negative effect on the brain as it fights viral infection. When this protein was blocked, cognitive function was restored.

Good Health Extends to Our Brains

It seems that by staying healthy we can improve our immunity and thereby help our brains stay healthy too. The more we learn, the more we are reminded that our brains do not exist in isolation, separate from our bodies.

The healthier we are, the healthier our brains will be.

When we have a gradual deterioration of our immune system it is called immunosenescence. It is a natural process of aging and is measured by how well we respond to infections and overall health as well as our ability to develop immunity through vaccinations.

Our aging immune systems are victims of oxidative damage and shortened telomeres which we are learning more and more through Alzheimer’s research can lead to dementia.

How Do We Affect our Immunosenescence?

We can improve our immunity doing a variety of things. Many of these things we may already be aware of but perhaps not incorporating into our daily routines for our senior loved ones and ourselves.

They are not detrimental so certainly could be tried in order to remain as strong as possible physically and mentally as we age.

  1. Washing hands often can reduce the spread of germs and keep our seniors healthy.
  2. Getting vaccinated. There are vaccinations that can help prevent your senior from becoming ill including seasonal flu, pneumonia and shingles. Prevention is the first step in staying well. We discussed vaccinations for seniors in this article.
  3. Eating well. Be sure that your senior continues to eat a variety of healthy foods and is not limiting themself to just a few favorites that they eat day in and day out. Reducing the convenience items, which may have reduced nutritional content, and providing fresher, more nutrient dense foods will help them boost their immune systems. Being underweight can also have a negative impact on immunity so be sure your senior is getting enough calories every day to maintain a healthy weight and prevent opportunistic infections.
  4. Including antioxidant sources in your senior’s daily diet. Be sure they are including foods rich in vitamins and minerals including vitamins E, A, C, D and zinc and selenium. There are many foods that contain antioxidants, including berries (red and blue varieties), grapes, beans, nuts including pecans, walnuts and Brazil nuts, white and sweet potatoes, apples, green and black tea, and dark green leafy vegetables.
  5. Sleeping. Getting enough sleep at night is important for our seniors and caregivers too. Sleep should be not only long enough but also uninterrupted to gain maximum advantage. Avoid frequent awakening throughout the night, such as bathroom visits or noise distractions, can help. You can read more discussion of sleep, including tips for better sleep, in this article.
  6. Responding to stress. How well does your senior handle stress? Are they constantly irritated by even the simplest things such as what time the newspaper arrives or if the neighbor’s cat is on the porch? Helping them deal with their emotions and cope with stress will reduce the harmful affect this can have on their immune system.
  7. Being physically active. There really is no two ways about it, we have to get our seniors — and even ourselves — moving every day. A peaceful walk, chores, or other physical activities that they will enjoy and will keep their bodies in motion will have a positive immune enhancing effect too.
  8. Melatonin supplement or in foods has been shown to help moderate the inflammatory process that leads to weakened immune systems. More studies are underway to show if there are positive effects of supplementing with Melatonin in aging adults. At this time, geriatricians have been recommending Melatonin as a more effective sleep aid that have fewer side effects for seniors than prescription drugs and getting better results.
  9. Stopping smoking.
  10. Talking to your senior’s doctor before trying any ‘immune boosting’ miracle aides. They could be harmful to both health and bank account.

These are interventions that we should be doing for our seniors and ourselves as family caregivers. Learning that it could help our brains is a well-earned bonus for staying healthy all year long!