Many people who live in Northern climates like the Midwest find healthy habits hard to keep up during the cold and dark days of winter. Yet, a nutritious diet, regular exercise, and other elements of a healthy lifestyle only grow with importance this time of year.
“As we age, all our body systems slow down, and this includes our immune system,” explained Dr. Luenetta Jackson, pharmacy director at Zing Health. A weakened immune system can make it harder to ward off the common cold, flu, and other seasonal infections, and can also make it harder to manage chronic diseases like asthma and diabetes.
Seniors can take charge of their health with these tips to boost their immune systems and prevent respiratory infections this winter.
Diet and Exercise: A Little Attention to Lifestyle Goes a Long Way
A varied diet that emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods is key to getting the nutrients you need to stay healthy. Fruits and vegetables are star foods that strengthen the immune system. Eating a variety of produce in all colors provides a spectrum of vitamins and minerals, along with fiber. For example, red and purple berries tend to be especially high in antioxidants.
Proteins are another essential food group. They are the building blocks for our cells, and are also good sources of Vitamin B. It is important to include high protein foods in a balanced diet, such as meat, fish, nuts, and beans.
Dr. Jackson’s rule of thumb is to fill half the plate with vegetables, one-fourth with protein and the remaining fourth with whole grains or starches. “The holidays are coming up, and you may have a little extra serving of a favorite holiday dish,” she said. “If you eat well 85 percent of the time, you can have those treats.”
Plenty of water also helps the body’s cells function well. Moderate consumption of coffee, green tea, or white tea provides a healthy dose of antioxidants vital to immune health.
Regular exercise is another powerful way to strengthen your immune response. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes a day, five days a week (or 150 minutes a week) of moderate physical activity. It’s OK to break up your activity into three 10-minute increments in a day. Brisk walks, group fitness classes, and home workout videos are effective ways to get physical activity.
Cold weather can worsen breathing problems for individuals with exercise-induced asthma or COPD, so Dr. Jackson recommends dressing warmly and covering the mouth and nose when exercising outdoors in the cold.
Immunizations: Your Safety Net
All seniors should stay up to date on annual flu shots and other immunizations. A healthy lifestyle, while important, does not replace the protection offered by vaccines. However, immune response can diminish with age, so seniors who focus on their overall immune health may find vaccines more effective.
Influenza, pneumococcal, and COVID-19 vaccines are particularly important for preventing winter respiratory infections. Seniors who were fully vaccinated against COVID when the vaccine became available are now eligible for a booster dose if they have not received one already. These vaccines do not offer 100 percent protection against illness, but they are proven to reduce the severity of the disease, even preventing hospitalization and death in most cases.
The varicella-zoster virus, which causes chickenpox, never leaves the body after an initial infection, often in childhood. It remains dormant in the nervous system and can reappear as shingles in elderly adults. Dr. Jackson recommends that seniors receive a two-dose shingles vaccine to prevent this painful condition. The series is only needed once.
Pertussis or whooping cough is particularly dangerous for infants, so elderly adults who spend a lot of time around young grandchildren can protect their families by receiving the TDAP (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) vaccine.
Supplements: Immune Health Help from the Pharmacy
A well-balanced diet should provide most of the nutrients you need, but some people may benefit from over-the-counter nutritional supplements. For example, a multivitamin for seniors can provide certain vitamins and minerals that are harder to get in a daily diet.
Winter can also mean less Vitamin D in the body because skin cells produce the nutrient from sunlight, which is in short supply this time of year. “Vitamin D is an integral part of the immune system. It helps prevent colds and the flu,” Dr. Jackson said. Not many foods contain Vitamin D and darker skin color can reduce sun absorption, so many people may need to consider taking a Vitamin D supplement this time of year.
The B vitamins (there are eight in all) are crucial to overall energy and well-being. “Vitamin B improves the functioning of our cells, gives bioenergy to our heart, and improves attention span and memory,” said Dr. Jackson. Because B vitamins are water-soluble, the body cannot store them, so daily intake is essential. A Vitamin B supplement may benefit those who do not get regular intake through food, such as people who limit or don’t eat animal proteins.
Some supplements can interact with prescription medications, so speak to your healthcare provider and pharmacist before adding any supplements to your daily routine. Be sure to tell your provider about all supplements that you take.
More Healthy Habits: More Ways to Prevent Infection
Wash Your Hands: As always, the best way to prevent the spread of infection is to wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before eating and after handling uncooked food, coughing, or using the bathroom. Also wash hands upon returning home.
Control Coughing or Wheezing: Stay home if ill, wear a mask, or cover your face with your arm when coughing. Even a seemingly minor cough can spread infection.
Quit Smoking: Quitting tobacco is one of the best things you can do for your health. Not only will it reduce the severity of respiratory infections, quitting smoking will reduce your risk for cancer, COPD, heart disease, and stroke. If you are ready to commit to smoking cessation, talk to your doctor about smoking cessation aids.
Get Enough Rest: Lack of sleep leads to a weakened immune system and a higher risk of infections. To get a good night of sleep, go to bed at the same time each night. Limit caffeine and alcohol later in the day; both can interfere with natural sleep cycles.
Avoid Allergens: Allergies can still be present during wintertime. Asthma has many environmental triggers that predispose seniors to respiratory infections. Wool, dust mites, and pet dander in the home can all bring on allergic reactions. To keep these allergens to a minimum:
- Change your sheets once a week. Launder pillow protectors, mattress covers, and your bedspread or comforter once a season.
- Deep clean your carpets twice a year.
- Change the filter to your home’s heating and air conditioning unit regularly.
- Use a humidifier to reduce nasal dryness, which can contribute to respiratory problems. Saline nasal sprays can also alleviate nasal dryness.
Zing Health Can Help
Zing Health makes pharmacists available to help members stay well year-round. “We are available for our members to call us,” said Dr. Jackson. “One of our licensed pharmacists will view your medication profile and make recommendations over the telephone.”
“We can make sure all the medications and supplements you take are safe, necessary, and effective,” she said. “We will also check for interactions between the medications you take and foods or over-the-counter drugs and supplements.”
call 1-866-946-4458 (TTY 711).