The aging immune system: primary and secondary alterations of immune reactivity in the elderly

Exp Gerontol. Jul-Oct 1997;32(4-5):401-13. doi: 10.1016/s0531-5565(96)00152-0.


The function of the immune system is known to decline in the elderly. The present communication will show that, similar to the situation in children, it is necessary to distinguish between primary and secondary alterations of the immune reactivity in the elderly. The primary immunological change in the elderly is the age-dependent intrinsic decline of immune responsiveness that is also observed in healthy persons, i.e., those selected according to the criteria of the SENIEUR Protocol of EURAGE (European Community Concerted Action on Aging). Secondary immunological changes are due to underlying diseases and various environmental factors, including diet, drug intake, physical activity, etc. While primary immunodeficiencies of the elderly are not, or only to a very minor extent, presently influenced by therapeutic measures, secondary alterations of the immune function offer further possibilities for corrective measures. Clinically, the consequences of impaired immune function in the elderly include increased susceptibility to infectious disease, the emergence of tumors, and increased autoimmune reactions, the latter albeit often without concomitant autoimmune disease. In fact, autoimmune diseases in generally begin to develop at younger ages, but their consequences are major factors affecting the quality of life of the elderly. Investigations of basic molecular and cellular aspects of the aging immune system are, therefore, of theoretical, clinical and socioeconomic interest.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging / physiology*
  • Alzheimer Disease / immunology
  • Antigens / immunology
  • Arteriosclerosis / immunology
  • Cellular Senescence
  • Humans
  • Immune System / physiology*
  • Lipids / physiology
  • Lymphocyte Subsets / physiology
  • T-Lymphocytes / physiology


  • Antigens
  • Lipids