Nutrition experts share the secrets to a healthy immune system for older adults

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

GettyImages/Nattakorn Maneerat
GettyImages/Nattakorn Maneerat

Related tags: Healthy ageing

‘Significant proportions’ of the older population in the UK are lacking in required intakes of energy, protein, dietary fibre, vitamin A, vitamin D, riboflavin, folate, magnesium, potassium, selenium, iron, calcium, iodine and zinc, according to the British Nutrition Foundation.

In a move that highlights the innovation opportunity for the food industry in the healthy ageing category, the organisation has launched a new resource to inform older adults, who may be experiencing low appetite or finding it hard to eat well, about what to eat to get all the vitamins and minerals needed to support a healthy immune system.

As we age, our immune system begins to work less effectively, making us more susceptible to diseases and infections, such as colds, flu and pneumonia, the BNF said. This, combined with a loss of interest in food and poorer appetite that may occur in later life, can make it harder to eat well and get all the nutrients needed for good health.

The new British Nutrition Foundation resource profiles 10 key nutrients the body needs throughout later life to support the immune system and provides handy hints on the foods that can provide these vitamins and minerals.

According to the BNF, some examples of important nutrients and where to find them include:

  • Vitamin A; which can be found in foods such as eggs, cheese and liver. Soups that are made from vegetables, such as butternut squash, sweet potato or carrots can also be delicious providers of beta carotene that the body converts to Vitamin A.
  • Vitamin B6; can be found in poultry, fish (for example canned tuna) and in some fruit and vegetables, such as bananas and avocados.
  • Vitamin C; can be found in citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruit, as well as vegetables, such as cabbage, peppers and tomatoes. Serving a meal with a portion of green cabbage and a portion of cauliflower will provide you with all the vitamin C needed for the day.
  • Vitamin D; can be found in oily fish like canned sardines and salmon. However, our main source of vitamin D is sunlight, not food, and it is recommended that we take a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D between October and early March when sunshine is limited, or all year round for people who are not able to get outdoors that often.
  • Copper; which can be found in wholegrain breakfast cereals, pasta and quinoa. Adding pulses to dishes such as stews and curries can provide a great source of copper too.

Sara Stanner, Science Director at the British Nutrition Foundation said: “The immune system is a complex network of cells and chemical compounds that help defend the body against infections. There are a number of different nutrients, including protein, omega-3 fats and many vitamins and minerals, that are involved in supporting our immune systems to work normally, and these are found in a wide variety of foods – there’s no single nutrient or food that can ‘boost’ immunity. This means that having a healthy, varied diet is key for getting the nutrients that are most important for our immune system, as well as all the other systems of the body.

“Our new Nutrition and Immunity for Older Adults resource has been developed bearing in mind the challenges we face when trying to eat well and stay healthy later in life and it is important to remember that our bodies and nutritional needs alter as we age.”

Ageing consumer market 'a massive opportunity' for the industry

With the population of over 65s expected to reach almost 150 million by 2050, the food industry is looking to identify the specific needs of what is a rapidly expanding, and often affluent, consumer group. More older people are keen to explore foods associated with slower cognitive decline. The number of new products launched that cater to ‘silver surfers’ and ‘baby boomers’, however, pales in comparison to NDP targeting younger cohorts.

Meanwhile, with the over-60s often reporting feeling increasingly overlooked and useless as they age, according to a World Health Organisation report, many experts believe the food industry could make better use of older role models in marketing and advertising.

Anu Turpeinen, nutrition research manager at Finnish company Valio, told FoodNavigator’s recent Positive Nutrition broadcast summit that the food industry should look to the health and beauty industry as an example of how to commercialise healthy ageing products.

“The beauty and personal care industry has established a successful business model for healthy ageing, with products containing premium ingredients in elegant packaging with positive language,”​ she said. “The fashion industry has started featuring older adults in ads enjoying life, and the food industry could do the same. We could take ownership of being part of the solution to enjoy life to the maximum as an older adult. There is ample scientific evidence on the importance of nutrition in healthy ageing and there are verified health claims to utilise in food products for heathy ageing​.”

A BNF spokesperson told FoodNavigator: “Showing empathy and using positive role models of people overcoming some of the challenges of ageing is a good approach. Ageing is a natural process but highlighting that people can take steps to slow it down gives people the sense that they can have some control over the process. Older adults are a diverse group, some people may be in good health, keeping active and eating well whereas others may be dealing with multiple health conditions and have a lot of challenges in keeping well so it important not to assume that all older people will have the same health concerns.”

The spokesperson added: “Finding ways to help older people have convenient, nutrient-rich foods and meals is key to enable older people to get all the nutrients they need in a way which is easy to eat.”

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