This is probably a stupid question, but I’ve never thought about this before…
My parents have each had a cold for close to two weeks now. I caught it from them eventually, but after five days or so, I was back to normal. Since my mom had two routine doctors’ appointments in this timeframe and neither of her doctors seemed concerned, I’m pretty sure they still have colds, and it hasn’t progressed to anything worse. Even though they’ve been sick twice as long as I was.
How much is my quicker recovery due to differences in age? They’re not elderly, but they’re in their 50s (I’m 30). I realize that elderly people are much frailer than those who are younger, but is one’s ability to bounce back from illness progressively eroded as you age, or does it come on fairly suddenly once you’re “old”? It would seem to be the former from observing my folks, but they’ve been in less than stellar health my whole life, so I don’t think using them as a yardstick is wise.
In the absence of any other replies, I’m going to throw in my two cents.
Yes, your immune system weakens with age and so takes longer, in theory, to purge infections like the common cold.
On the other hand, if you’re exposed to a cold virus that is the same or similar to a strain you’ve encountered before, your body will usually eliminate it much more quickly.
Although I could be wrong.
On a related note, I’ve often wondered whether there’s any point trying to avoid catching colds while a person is young. Obviously you wouldn’t want a cold by choice, but while you’re young it’s not life-threatening and you build up resistance to more strains.
I am older than your parents, and I find that as I’ve gotten older I recuperate sooner from colds, etc. than when I was younger. I also get colds less frequently. I once read somewhere (sorry, no cite) that your immune system “remembers” every virus or bacteria it’s fought, so that next time it’s encountered they can take appropriate action more quickly.
You said they’ve been in less than stellar health for a while, so perhaps they simply don’t have a really robust immune system to begin with.
There are two things at work in the OP’s parents. One is that as you age, your immune system gets weaker. The second is that yes, your immune system retains a copy of the antibody to every cold virus it’s ever fought off in your life.
So what this means is that as you get older, you get fewer colds, because chances are good that the virus you just picked up is closely related to something you had years ago, and your immune system whips out an army of antibodies in jig time, so maybe you experience a transitory bit of a scratchy throat, but no full-bore cold.
But the downside is that when you pick up a virus that’s completely new to your system, your aging immune system takes longer to crank out its army of antibodies, so you’re sick longer, and the cold you have is worse.
They both have autoimmune diseases (chron’s in dad’s case, psoriasis in mom’s) so I’m sure that has a large part in their health.
I used them as an example because it made me think of the question since they do seem slower to get better lately, but I was more curious about what happens as healthy people age. So far I’m one of them, so…
Interesting info from Duck Duck Goose. I’ve read that people were mystified when the majority of fatalities of the 1918 Flu Pandemic were young people, who should have been healthier than the older victims who recovered. But when the flu reached remote communities in the subarctic and Pacific islands it wiped out everybody.
One book I read about this flu said that the reason for so many fatalities among the young and healthy was that there immune systems were strong. Yes, strong. What they died of was often pneumonia from the huge quantities of fluid in the lungs as their immune systems battled the viruses. Those with weaker immune systems were unable to mount such a defense.