Our immune system does not shut down with age, says a new study published in PLOS Pathogens today. T cells can respond to virus infections in an older person with the same vigor as T cells from a young person.
Researchers examined individuals, younger than 40, between 41 to 59 years of age and older than 60, infected with three different viruses, including West Nile, and found the older group demonstrated perfectly normal immune responses.
Both the number of virus-fighting T cells and the functionality of the T cells were equivalent in all three groups.
"For a long time, it was thought the elderly were at a higher risk of infections because they lacked these immune cells, but that simply isn't the case," said Jonathan Bramson of McMaster University, the study's principal investigator. "The elderly are certainly capable of developing immunity to viruses. So as we age, our bodies are still able to respond to new viruses, while keeping us immune to viruses we've been exposed to in the past."
He added that these results have important implications for vaccination of elderly individuals.
Currently, vaccines for the elderly aren't designed to elicit responses from these immune cells, and this might explain the lack of effective protection from the flu vaccine, he said.
Vaccines specifically designed to generate T-cell immunity may be more effective at protecting older adults, Bramson said.