Diet & Nutrition
Senior Health

Zinc Deficiency & the Immune System in Older Adults

Oysters, one of the foods highest in zinc, may or may not be an aphrodisiac as some people claim. However, oysters could definitely boost your immune system response, according to a study done at Oregon State University and published online in March 2015 in the journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research. The researchers report that zinc, an important mineral in human health, appears to affect how the immune system responds to stimulation, especially inflammation.

A release from the university explains that zinc deficiency could play a role in chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes that involve inflammation. Such diseases often show up in older adults, who are more at risk for zinc deficiency.

The release quotes lead author Emily Ho, a professor and director of the Moore Family Center for Whole Grain Foods, Nutrition and Preventive Health in the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences, as saying, “When you take away zinc, the cells that control inflammation appear to activate and respond differently; this causes the cells to promote more inflammation.”

Zinc is an essential micronutrient required for many biological processes, including growth and development, neurological function, and immunity. It is naturally found in protein-rich foods such as meat and shellfish, with oysters among the highest in zinc content.

Approximately 12 percent of people in the U.S. do not consume enough zinc in their diets. Of those 65 and older, closer to 40 percent do not consume enough zinc, Ho said. Older adults tend to eat fewer zinc-rich foods and their bodies do not appear to use or absorb zinc as well, making them highly susceptible to zinc deficiency.

“It’s a double-whammy for older individuals,” said Ho, who also is a principal investigator with the Linus Pauling Institute.

In the study, researchers set out to better understand the relationship between zinc deficiency and inflammation. They conducted experiments that indicated zinc deficiency induced an increase in inflammatory response in cells. The researchers were able to show, for the first time, that reducing zinc caused improper immune cell activation and dysregulation of a cytokine IL-6, a protein that affects inflammation in the cell, Ho said.

Researchers also compared zinc levels in living mice, young and old. The older mice had low zinc levels that corresponded with increased chronic inflammation and decreased IL-6 methylation, which is an epigenetic mechanism that cells use to control gene expression. Decreased IL-6 methylation also was found in human immune cells from elderly people, Ho said.

Together, the studies suggest a potential link between zinc deficiency and increased inflammation that can occur with age, she said.

The findings h. Co-authors are Carmen P. Wong and Nicole A. Rinaldi of the College of Public Health. The research was supported by the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station, Bayer Consumer Care AG of Switzerland, and OSU.