Current influenza vaccines are 50 to 60 percent effective in preventing illness in older people. Two recent studies suggest that the flu vaccine might be even more effective in older adults when supplemented with calories, vitamins, minerals, and exercise.
A liquid nutritional supplement containing enhanced levels of antioxidants shows a potential benefit to older adults due to improved antibody responses to the influenza vaccines, reports a study in the September 2002 Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences.
Wendeline Wouters-Wesseling and colleagues of Numico Research B.V. and Wageningen University in The Netherlands noted that with aging the immune system functions less effectively. Because of this, the influenza vaccination does not always result in adequate protective serum antibody in older adults. However, in healthy, well-nourished elderly people, there is only a small decline in immune function. Therefore, nutritional intervention might improve the antibody response of older adults after influenza vaccination and thereby reduce influenza-related illnesses and deaths.
Another study in the same issue of Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences is the first to observe an association between physical activity and immune response to the influenza immunization. Marian L. Kohut and her colleagues at Iowa State University found that, among older adults, regular, moderate to vigorous exercise was associated with improved immune response (higher antibody titer) to the influenza vaccine.
The Iowa State University researchers cautioned that in the vaccination study, limited or low intensity exercise did not affect immune response. Enhanced immune response came with "exercise three or more times per week for twenty minutes or more at an intensity vigorous enough to work up a sweat," according to Dr. Kohut and colleagues.
The researchers also found that less stress was associated with a better immune response to the vaccine. Overall, Dr. Kohut and colleagues concluded, "The findings from this study suggest that there is an association between physical activity, diet, psychosocial factors, and the immune response to influenza immunization in older adults.
In other words, older adults who want to get the most out of their flu shot should focus on stress, nutrition, diet, and exercise.
The Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences is a refereed publication of The Gerontological Society of America, the national organization of professionals in the field of aging.