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Eating Well—and Safely—During Your Golden Years

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Immunity Declines With Age | Food for Thought

PD_Fitness and WellBeing_67061For older adults, there are a number of foods to avoid to decrease the chance of foodborne illness. But since the immune system declines with age, fighting off bacterial pathogens in foods could be more difficult for an older adult than younger adults, who might end up with nothing worse than some passing diarrhea or a low-grade fever.

Immunity Declines With Age

Some people over aged 60 may have atrophic gastritis, a condition of insufficient stomach acid that could make it easier for harmful bacteria to survive the journey through the gastrointestinal tract. The immune system starts to lose efficiency at a certain point, too. But, the rate at which that happens differs from person to person. There's no way of knowing for certain who is going to be affected when—or how strongly. So if you are in your golden years, how do you know if your immune system has weakened to the point that you should take extra precautions when it comes to food safety and listen to government alerts? If you notice that you are getting infections that you did not used to get, then that may be a sign. But no matter how healthy you may feel, it is good to be aware of the possibilities of getting certain diseases and to be thoughtful of the foods you eat.

Food for Thought

As you enter your 60s, 70s, and 80s and the immune system declines, it is wise to consider whether the food you are eating could put you at risk for an infection from harmful foodborne bacteria. Older adults in nursing homes or those with vulnerable immune systems, obviously have to be careful about what they eat. But healthy older adults should make conscious, informed decisions about food safety, too. Taking a calculated risk—or opting for zero risk is better than ignoring risk altogether.

Give thoughtful consideration to the following foods:

Uncooked, refrigerated foodssoft unpasteurized cheese such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined and Mexican-style varieties; deli meats and other ready-to-eat meat and poultry products; smoked fish, such as smoked salmon; refrigerated pates and meat spreads
All of these foods can contain bacteria. Cooking kills the harmful microorganisms, but none of these foods are eaten heated. The bacteria can cause everything from flu-like symptoms to meningitis, a life-threatening inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord.

Foods made with unpasteurized raw eggsCaesar salad dressing, hollandaise sauce, egg nog, key lime pie
Raw, unpasteurized eggs may contain bacteria that can cause nausea and diarrhea, but it can also lead to serious complications such as severe dehydration. Runny eggs and sunny sides-up can contain bacteria too. Eggs that are runny are not exposed to enough heat to kill the bacteria that may be present, and sunny sides-up would need to be flipped over to make sure the bacteria are killed on both sides.

Raw mollusksoysters, clams, and mussels
These foods sometimes contain bacteria thatcan cause severe dehydration and stomach cramps to fever and blood poisoning.

These curly vegetable threads that often appear atop salads or tucked into sandwiches can contain bacteria. The high level of moisture sprouts need to grow provides the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive. Since the sprouts are typically eaten raw, the pathogens—which can cause kidney failure—don't get killed during cooking. Washing thoroughly doesn't rid them of all the bacteria either.

Fresh, unpasteurized juice
Some juice may be unpasteurized, meaning that it has not been treated to kill harmful bacteria. It may cause foodborne illness, ranging from diarrhea and stomach cramps to more severe symptoms.

You may still become sick despite taking these safety precautions. If you think you might have a food-related illness, contact your doctor right away.


United States Department of Agriculture



Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education



E. coli infection and food safety. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/features/ecoliinfection/. Updated July 29, 2013. Accessed September 4, 2013.

Food safety for older adults. United States Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/SelectedHealthTopics/UCM312790.pdf. Updated September 2011. Accessed September 3, 2013.

For safety for older adults. United States Food and Drug Administration and United States Department of Agriculture website. Available at: http://www.foodsafety.gov/poisoning/risk/olderadults/. Accessed September 4, 2013.

Listeria (listeriosis): definition. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/listeria/definition.html. Updated July 11, 2013. Accessed September 4, 2013.

Listeria (listeriosis): prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/listeria/prevention.html. Updated August 1, 2013. Accessed September 4, 2013.

Older adults and food safety. United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service website. Available at: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/ab56957a-3f3c-4b67-aece-44ef1890b0fd/Older_Adults_and_Food_Safety.pdf?MOD=AJPERES. Accessed September 4, 2013.

Last reviewed September 2013 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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