Looking Into the Mirror of EBOLA: A Reminder of the Importance of Nutrition As We Age

04/21/2015 02:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

When the world was devastated by the deadly outbreak of Ebola in West Africa last year, we were given a warning call on many levels. While I was mulling over the whys and hows of the epidemic, my mind automatically went to the role that nutrition can play in helping to stem the spread, and mortality rates, of diseases and perhaps deter future outbreaks. The next step my mind took, (admittedly, I research nutrition, immunology and infection in older adults), was to the role nutrition plays in maintaining a robust immune response and fighting against infections particularly in older adults. Remember the SARS outbreak in 2003? SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is a viral respiratory disease caused by the SARS coronavirus. The outbreak began in southern China and caused an eventual 8,096 cases with 774 deaths reported in multiple countries. The overall mortality rate in aged populations exceeded 50%. Age matters in fighting infections. As we age, our immune systems gray and we need to factor this into our response to outbreaks.

It is telling that infectious epidemics usually originate in areas of the world that suffer from poor nutrition. Malnutrition is the primary cause of immunodeficiency worldwide, and older populations are particularly at risk for sub-optimal nutrition. Numerous factors such as decreased physical ability and sensory impairment as we get older directly affect changes in food consumption. On top of that, energy needs decrease with age, yet the need for a full spectrum of nutrients remains. A common result is an increased risk of malnutrition. Decreased purchasing power, at least for a segment of older population also translates into food insecurity and the consumption of less nutritious food.

Nutrients are needed for the normal function of the immune response; whether it is to increase the number of cells capable of fighting viruses, produce antibodies and other key mediators or kill other invading pathogens. Proper nutrition is also important in keeping inflammation under control. While nutrition requirements for older adults are not fully defined, we need to be sure that we are doing everything we can to cover our bases on the nutrition front, eating balanced meals and foods rich in micronutrients, proteins, and the healthy types of fats.

We cannot rely on vaccines alone. Thankfully, The World Health Organization is currently administering an EBOLA vaccine in the hardest hit areas of the outbreak, Guinée Bissau, but this epidemic is not over. As I write this, more exposed aid workers are arriving in the United States. Statistics on the overall number of older adults affected by this outbreak and the efficacy of the vaccine are not yet available. Because of the fact that older adults do not respond with a totally effective immune response to vaccines, this method of prevention might not safeguard the elder population. On a less devastating, yet more generalizable level than EBOLA, we see this lower efficacy in current influenza vaccines. Despite vaccination, flu remains among the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in older populations. The good news is that emerging research indicates that vaccine efficacy can be improved through nutritional supplementation.

Looking past the absolutely devastating effects of the EBOLA crisis, we should use this terrible event as a reminder of the importance of nutrition in healthy aging, increasing our health span and quality of life. Cheaper and less invasive on many levels than healthcare, we need to make sure we are arming our immune systems nutritionally. This goes for fighting future epidemics as well as the normal health concerns that increase as we age.