Medical Discovery News
By Drs. David Niesel and Norbert Herzog
The people who are at the highest risk of dying from common infections like pneumonia, influenza and colds are 50 and older. Traditionally, scientists believed that as we age, our immune systems weaken, leaving us more vulnerable than ever to infections. But new research suggests that this isn’t completely true – certain parts of the immune system remain fully functional and robust longer.

It is true that older people make fewer antibodies, proteins that attach to viruses and cells infected with viruses to mark them for elimination by the immune system. This explains why some vaccines aren’t as effective in the elderly. The flu vaccine, for example, contains a “dead” virus that stimulates the body to make more protective antibodies against the flu.

However, other vaccines are well-received in older people, like the varicella zoster virus vaccine that prevents shingles. This vaccine does not involve antibodies, but T-cells, which kill infected cells, and memory T-cells, which recognize and respond to a reinfection.

White blood cells, formally called leukocytes, represent an army ready to defend the body from bacterial or viral attacks. T-cells are one type of soldier in this army, responsible for cellular immunity – killing infected cells to protect the body. The thymus, located between the breastbone and heart, produces T-cells. But as people age, the thymus does too.

The thymus shrinks by about 3 percent a year during middle age, and there is a corresponding fall in the production of T-cells. As humans age, their T-cells increasingly become memory cells. Therefore, it’s been assumed that the T-cell response to kill cells infected with a virus is impaired in older adults, making them more susceptible to viral infections.

To test that assumption, researchers at the McMaster Immunology Research Centre in Ontario isolated blood from people with one of three types of viral infections: West Nile virus, Epstein-Barr virus, and cytomegalovirus. They divided the patients into three groups: those under 40, those middle-aged (41 – 59) and those over 60. They then measured the amount, type, and activity of the T-cells in each group. The older group did indeed have a shift toward the production of memory T-cells. But surprisingly, the amount of virus-specific T-cells did not decrease with age – the older group had roughly the same amount as the middle and younger groups.

These results suggest that the thymus continues to play an important role in producing T-cells that target viral infections as we age. It also indicates that vaccines designed to stimulate cellular immunity, instead of antibodies, would be more effective in older people. So the flu vaccine might prevent more flu cases in older people if the dead virus was replaced with a live but weakened virus, but currently that’s not approved in the U.S. for people over 50.

Medical Discovery News is a weekly radio and print broadcast highlighting medical and scientific breakthroughs hosted by professor emeritus, Norbert Herzog, and professor, David Niesel, biomedical scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Learn more at