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Foodborne Illness and Aging


By: Heather Williams

It is no surprise that our body changes as we get older.  We see it in the mirror and in how we feel over time.  Maybe we see those wrinkles that weren’t there before, the hair changes to a greyer, silver color, and maybe even notice a little thinning.  Our skin even gets a little dryer.  As the physical body ages and the external body begins to change, so do our organs and organ systems.  Even those parts that are designed to keep us healthy begin to weaken over time, leaving us susceptible to more infections and illness.

Knowing this, you might find yourself taking vitamins, going to the doctor more regularly, avoiding sick people, and all the things we can normally think about to keep us healthy. But what about foodborne illness?  Did you know that the aging body also loses its resistance to foodborne bacteria?  The digestive system begins to fail at the basic immune and digestive functions and slowly deteriorate over time.  This results in an increase in food related illness as we get older.  In fact, individuals over 65 years old are reported more often than any other age group to seek medical care for gastrointestinal (GI) related complaints. This reduction in immunity puts older adults in the risk risk group for foodborne illnesses and long-term complications. It is more important than ever as we approach the golden years to protect ourselves from unsafe foods and foodborne illness.  We should also reach out to the older adults that we know to make sure they are healthy and protecting themselves.

How Does Age Affect Response to Foodborne Infection?

Body Changes

Core organ functions begin to change as we age.  Older adults produce less stomach acid, an agent that not only helps digest food but also kills pathogenic bacteria.  Additionally, kidneys begin to weaken with age.  Weakened kidneys have more difficulty filtering bacteria, allowing harmful bacteria to enter the body and other systems. The lining of the intestines becomes weaker.  The barrier in the small intestine known as Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue (GALT) as well as intestinal epithelial cells are the first line of defense against invading microorganisms making it out of the digestive system.  As the GALT ages, it allows easier entry of pathogens in to mucosal layers, allowing inflammation and infection to occur.  Antigen response to pathogens is also retarded, allowing the harmful bacteria to remain longer and multiply than in younger, healthier organs.

Safe Handling of Food

According to a consumer survey conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “older adults appear to be less consistent in practicing safe food handling than the general population.”  They suggested that sense of smell begins to deteriorate, eye sight worsens, and sometimes memory lapses at key disinfection steps.  These issues combined with food preparation may lead to food being consumed after expiration date and not noticing spills of hazardous food items.  It can also lead to forgetting to wash hand, food that should be washed prior to consumption, and not thoroughly cooking foods to proper temperature.

How Can I Prevent Age-Related Foodborne Illness?

There are a lot of ways the prevent age related foodborne illness.  To begin, boost your gut’s immune system and help prevent foodborne infection from occurring before it leads to illness.

Boost Your Gut’s Immune System

“80 percent of your immune system is located in your gut, which is just one more reason why ‘tending to’ your gut microflora is an essential element of good health,” says Dr. Joseph Mercola, a New York Times Best Selling Author and osteopathic physician.  Dr. Mercola promotes optimizing gut flora as a way to combat foodborne illness and digestive related illnesses.  These suggestions are great for those of all ages, but particularly important to incorporate as the body ages and immune response declines. Dr. Mercola recommends regularly consuming fermented or cultured foods. He suggests fermented foods such as cabbage, carrots, celery, collards, and kale as well as fermented raw milk such as kefir or yogurt.  Kim chi, sauerkraut, and kombucha are other great sources bacteria rich foods.  He even suggested consuming these food products that are good bacteria rich multiple times per day.  Not all food product labeled probiotic are truly beneficial.  Dr. Mercola says to be sure that the fermented foods and beverages you select are not pasteurized, contain added sugars, and that the bacteria are live for best results.  Pasteurized products kill most of the beneficial bacteria rendering the product useless for protecting your digestive system. Sugar adds stress to the digestive system and reduces efficiency in proper processing.  He goes on to explain that there is a higher beneficial bacterial count in food sources than in probiotic pills, so consuming fermented and cultured foods and beverages is a better source of this healthy defense.

Take Precautions to Prevent Foodborne Illness

While the body can do what it can do once infected, it only takes care of the consequences of foodborne illness.  Prevention is the best way to ensure the body stays healthy.  Taking a few extra steps will help prevent foodborne infection. Be sure to label perishable food and observe best by dates.  Do not rely on color or smell to determine if food has gone bad.  Refrigerate leftovers right away and reheat food to a proper temperature prior to consuming.  Other tips include follow proper food storage guidance to ensure food is discarded after the appropriate time, refrigerated cooked food within 2 hours, and ensure appropriate temperature is used for cooking.  Use a food thermometer to be sure food is cooked to proper temperature.  Do not use touch as a test of doneness.  Be sure to wash hands regularly and before preparing or eating food.  Be sure all food equipment is thoroughly cleaned before using or put away and anything that comes in contact with raw food is properly sanitized.

While food safety is particularly important for older adults, it is important for everyone’s health.  Follow these basic tips to keep yourself and your family safe from foodborne illness and reach out to the older adults you know who may need some help.








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