Researchers say vitamins D and E and zinc can help address impaired immune function in the elderly
05/22/2019 // Evangelyn Rodriguez // Views

The immune system undergoes many changes as people age. Like the rest of the body, the immune system also weakens, making older adults more vulnerable to diseases and infections. In a paper published in the journal Nutrition Research, researchers from Chungbuk National University in Korea and Tufts University in the U.S. reviewed the results of observational studies and clinical trials examining the effects of zinc, vitamin E, and vitamin D on immune function in the elderly. They reported that poor nutrition aggravates the impairment of immune function.

Vitamins D and E prevents age-related diseases in the elderly

Vitamin D deficiency is common in people, and it is linked to an increased risk of infection. A study back in 2009 related vitamin D deficiency with aging. Mice with partial or complete lack of vitamin D exhibited symptoms of premature aging such as growth retardation, osteoporosis, skin wrinkling, and progressive loss of balance and hearing. The author noted that aging shows a dependency on hormonal forms of vitamin D, which means that there must be an optimal concentration of vitamin D that can delay the process of aging.

It was initially thought that the role of vitamin D was only to maintain skeletal health in the elderly. However, vitamin D receptors were soon discovered in the nervous system as well as in the cardiovascular and endocrine systems, which indicated that vitamin D affected more than just the bones. Further studies eventually discovered that low levels of vitamin D were linked to diseases associated with aging such as cognitive decline, depression, bone degeneration, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Therefore, it is now believed that ensuring older people get adequate amounts of vitamin D even before they reach the point of deficiency may prevent the onset of diseases associated with aging. (Related: Vitamin D supplements found to be associated with weight loss in obese children, says study.)


Vitamin E, or alpha-tocopherol, is a powerful antioxidant that protects lipids by scavenging peroxyl radicals that threaten to destroy them. These lipid peroxyl radicals are related to aging and the pathologic status of certain diseases such as diabetes mellitus and primary hyperlipidemia. Studies show that as people age, the rate by which their red blood cells utilize vitamin E decreases. This decrease is linked to the onset, aggravation, and complications of several diseases as well as aging due to oxidative stress.

Another study also found that older people with poor physical health had low levels of vitamin E, but high concentrations of inflammatory markers. Chronic low-grade inflammation is characteristic of aging and is linked to poor nutrition. This finding demonstrates that normal levels of vitamin E in the elderly may prevent chronic inflammation associated with aging, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

Zinc enhances immune response in the elderly

Zinc is required in many cellular processes, particularly in the normal functioning of the immune system. Deficiency in zinc causes a decline in immune responses and also promotes systemic inflammation. Zinc deficiency is especially common in older adults because most of the foods they avoid due to cholesterol are the same foods that are rich in zinc.

According to a study, zinc is crucial in the development and function of phagocytes and natural killer (NK) cells, immune cells that engulf bacteria and contain viral infections, respectively. When zinc is lacking in the elderly, their immune response against bacterial and viral infections is comprised. Zinc deficiency also decreases thymuline, a hormone necessary for the maturation of T helper cells. This explains why there is a decline in immune function in the elderly, specifically those with zinc deficiency. It is therefore advisable for older adults to ensure that they get sufficient amounts of zinc, whether from food or supplements, to boost their immune system and make them less susceptible to infections.

Visit to learn more about what affects your immune system.

Sources include: 1 2 3

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