Home Care Blog>In Home Care | June 28, 2016
End of Life Care & The Immune System | According to the National Library of Medicine, an individual’s immune system slows down with age. Since the purpose of the immune system is to protect the body from harmful substances such as bacteria, viruses, cancer cells, and so forth, when the immune system is compromised, it cannot protect the body the same way it did when it was at full strength.
Because the immune system slows down with age, seniors are at higher risk of illness and disease, and they often recover at a slower pace if they do get sick or injured. Sometimes, the body’s immune system may even become disoriented and start to attack itself. This is known as an autoimmune disorder. Some common autoimmune disorders include Celiac disease, Graves disease, Multiple Sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus.
Often, diseases will weaken a person’s immune system, and the weakened system cannot fight off the next round of attackers. This is why it seems that a senior may go from one illness to the next. Sadly, the very things that are supposed to help our bodies fight disease can weaken the defenses as well. For example, radiation treatments and chemotherapy are necessary to rid the body of cancer, but the treatments also kill off many of the good cells needed to protect the body. This creates a difficult situation, since a senior’s body already produces fewer white blood cells and antibodies to respond to antigens (those substances which attack the immune system) and defend the body.
For seniors who have a terminal illness and are starting end of life care, a weakened immune system can provide serious challenges to their final months’ quality of life. This is why many end of life care programs will encourage vaccines, foods, and medications designed to enhance the immune system and prevent illness. A smoker may wonder what difference it makes if they smoke when they are already facing a terminal illness. The same goes for those who love to drink alcohol. End of life care specialists discourage both of these not because of their standard risks, but because smoking and drinking alcohol suppress the immune system. As a result, an already weakened immune system may not be able to protect the body at all and the final months of life may be shortened with many and more severe complications.
When it comes to a loved one’s end of life, there is no easy way to talk about it. Often, the best we can hope for is dignity, comfort, and no pain. Protecting the immune system as much as possible during the final days, weeks, and months can certainly help.