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Chapter: Essentials of Anatomy and Physiology: Lymphatic System and Immunity

Effects of Aging on the Lymphatic System and Immunity

Describe how aging affects the lymphatic system and immunity.


Aging appears to have little effect on the lymphatic system’s ability to remove fluid from tissues, absorb lipids from the digestive tract, or remove defective red blood cells from the blood. However, aging has a severe impact on the immune system.

 With age, people eventually lose the ability to produce new, mature T cells in the thymus. By age 40, much of the thymus has been replaced with adipose tissue, and after age 60, the thymus decreases in size to the point that it can be difficult to detect. While the number of T cells remains stable in most individuals due to the replication (not maturation) of T cells in lymphatic tissues, the T cells are less functional. In many individuals, the ability of helper T cells to proliferate in response to antigens decreases. Thus, antigen exposure produces fewer helper T cells, which results in less stimulation of B cells and cytotoxic T cells. Consequently, both antibody-mediated immunity and cell-mediated immunity responses to antigens decrease with age.

 Both primary and secondary antibody responses decrease with age. More antigen is required to produce a response, the response is slower, less antibody is produced, and fewer memory cells result. Thus, a person’s ability to resist infections and devel-op immunity decreases.

 The ability of cell-mediated immunity to resist intracellular pathogens also decreases with age. For example, the elderly are more susceptible to influenza (flu) and should be vaccinated every year. Some pathogens cause disease but are not eliminated from the body; with age, decreased immunity can lead to reactivation of the pathogen. An example is the virus that causes chickenpox in chil-dren, which can remain latent within nerve cells, even though the disease seems to have disappeared. Later in life, the virus can leave the nerve cells and infect skin cells, causing painful lesions known as herpes zoster, or shingles.

 Autoimmune disease occurs when immune responses destroy otherwise healthy tissue. There is very little increase in the number of new-onset autoimmune diseases in the elderly. However, the chronic inflammation and immune responses that began earlier in life have a cumulative, damaging effect. Likewise, the increased incidence of cancer in the elderly is likely to be caused by a com-bination of repeated exposure to and damage from cancer-causing agents and decreased immunity.

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