A new study finds that the elderly, compared with younger adults, are at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from pneumonia. The findings, to be published in the Journal of Immunology, also find that vaccines against the disease are less effective in the elderly.

Researchers examined two types of immune system cells, macrophages and B cells, located in specialized areas in the spleens of mice. Macrophages and B cells appeared to be just as effective in old mice as they were in younger mice; however, there were fewer of them in the old mice.

“If we knew how to replenish these cells, we might be able to lower the risk of bacterial infections in the elderly,” said Pamela Witte, PhD, senior author and professor in the microbiology and immunology department at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. “This is an unexplored area in aging.”

The researchers also say that the findings could provided clues to developing vaccines against pneumococcal pneumonia that would be more effective in the elderly. For example, current vaccines instruct B cells to make antibodies against bacteria that cause pneumonia. If humans are like mice, however, the elderly will have fewer B cells. So it might make more sense to develop vaccines that instead target other immune system cells.

Source: Loyola University Health System