We’ve probably all faced a battle with food poisoning before. Eating food that has been contaminated by pathogens or other harmful bacteria generally leads to an excruciating 24-hour-period punctuated by equal parts diarrhea and vomiting as the body rids itself of the poisons ingested.
And as agonizing as this process can be, the vast majority of us are completely back to normal 48 hours later, our fully-functioning immune systems having rid us of the offending toxins in a relatively rapid fashion.
And while nobody in the throes of a foodborne illness attack would call the process “painless” or “easy,” upon reflection we find that because we are otherwise healthy, food poisoning is nothing more than a momentary – albeit unpleasant – experience.
Such is not the case however with certain segments of the population – particularly older adults – who possess immune systems that are no longer perform optimally. For them, consuming contaminated food doesn’t just mean an uncomfortable night cuddled up next to the toilet, it can be a veritable life-and-death ordeal.
When I took my 72-year old mother into my home a few years back and began avidly reading and researching best practices in the caregiving industry, I was shocked to learn how many potentially preventable deaths – as many as 10,000 — occur each year amongst senior citizens from food poisoning.
This article will overview three reasons older adults are more vulnerable to foodborne illnesses and ways to prevent this potentially lethal issue.
1. Disease Fighting Cells: A Reduction in Forces
The less-than-optimal immune system functioning of older adults mentioned above is manifested by a natural decrease in the number of disease fighting cells our body produces as we age. This leads to a scenario where older adults are more likely to contract a foodborne illness, as bacteria that would be flushed easily by younger people – often without any of the awful symptoms mentioned above – are retained inside the system of people over the age of 60.
All of us ingest potentially harmful bacteria more frequently than we realize – most of the time our cells simply destroy these “bad guys” before we even recognize the symptoms – but older adults have fewer of these disease-fighting cells to spare, and thus they are much more likely to suffer a more catastrophic bout with food poisoning than the rest of the population.
2. Digestive System: Much Slower
Along with a reduction in disease-fighting cells, another natural occurrence of aging is that the overall digestive system beings to operate in a slower, more laborious, manner. Our gastrointestinal tract – essentially our stomach and intestines – plays a huge role within our immune system, but begins to function less effectively the older we get.
The stomach, specifically, is vital as it produces acids that kill off bacteria before it can enter the small intestine. But this production begins to wane as get older, and the comparative absence of stomach acidity makes infection much more likely.
And because the whole digestive process takes longer for older people, food is stored in the gut for a longer period of time, creating a situation where harmful bacteria can begin to grow on food that is waiting in the stomach to be processed.
3. Compounding Factors
There are some other factors that further decrease our immunity against foreign pathogens beyond natural aging. For instance, undergoing surgery for any reason will put additional strains on the body’s ability to fight infection. Other conditions commonly found among older adults that can increase susceptibility to foodborne illnesses include diabetes, a diminished sense of taste and smell, and the possibility of malnutrition.
Older adults who do not get the requisite amount of physical activity and have poor diets – in other words, those who are otherwise pretty unhealthy – are at a much greater risk for attracting foodborne illness as well. While it is true that the immune system declines naturally with age, our ability to fight off bacteria and viruses don’t disappear altogether with age. Those who fail to exercise and eat right are only putting themselves at further risk.
Sarah Jennings has been taking care of others her whole life. In 2005, she moved her mother into her family home. She uses her personal experience to share with others about caring for the elderly. She currently writes for Brookdale Assisted Living.