Nutrition Column – Protecting Aging Health Through Nutrition, Exercise and Safe Food Choices to be Discussed at Smith Conference

An infection, whether from a virus in the air or bacteria in our food, takes its toll on all of us, but especially if our immune system is compromised.

As we age, immune function begins to decline. Immune cells respond more slowly, and we end up with decreased ability to protect ourselves against pathogens and other invaders. Changes also occur in the gastrointestinal tract – the GI track slows down, produces less acid and is more easily inflamed.

These changes increase susceptibility to infection from viruses, parasites and bacteria that may be in our food, water or air. While there is little we can do about advancing age, there is much we can do to avoid unwanted pathogens and to boost immunity through proper diet and exercise.

Foodborne pathogens of particular concern to older persons include Salmonella species, E. coli O157:H7, Vibrio species, Clostridium perfringens, Staphylococcus aureus and Campylobacter jejuni. Salmonella Enteritidis is of particular concern, as consumption of undercooked eggs is considered the most common risky food safety behavior among those over age 65.

E. coli is another concern, as the mortality rate in nursing home outbreaks can reach 35 percent. Infections from Vibrio species occur at the highest rate in people 65 to 74 years old with 5,500 cases per year, according to FoodNet data. Finally, although elderly are not more susceptible to illness caused by Campylobacter jejuni, they are more at risk for serious complications and even death as a result of infection.  

There are certain behaviors of particular importance in preventing foodborne illness among the elderly. Because of the higher risk for Salmonella Enteritidis, the most important preventative measure is cooking eggs until both the yolks and whites are firm and using a thermometer when preparing egg dishes. Other important behaviors for this population are similar to those critical for all high-risk groups, such as avoiding raw seafood, raw sprouts, unpasteurized milk and soft cheeses made from raw milk; washing hands thoroughly before food preparation; avoiding cross-contamination; cooking foods properly; washing fresh produce; and refrigerating foods promptly.

Immunity and aging issues will be the focus of the second day of this year’s Lillian Fountain Smith Conference for Nutrition Educators scheduled for June 10 and 11 at the Marriott Hotel, 350 E. Prospect Road, Fort Collins, Colo.

Dr. Kevin High from the Wake Forest University School of Medicine will open the Friday session with a discussion on nutritional strategies to boost immunity and prevent infection in older adults. Next, Dr. Robert Mazzeo from the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado will discuss the role of exercise in modulating immune function in the elderly. The closing speaker will be Dr. Lydia Medeiros from the Department of Human Nutrition at The Ohio State University who will discuss the role of food safety in protecting the health of older adults.  

The two-day Smith Conference, open to the public, is sponsored by the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Colorado State University. Registration is $95 for both days and $50 for one day. For more information, contact Pam Blue at (970) 491-7435 or check out the conference Web site at  

by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension