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The vitamin that guards the lungs

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Pneumonia can kill and it can be especially dangerous as you grow older. But there’s a vitamin that can help the immune system shrug off this deadly threat.

Lab tests at Tufts University indicate that extra vitamin E can significantly increase the immune system’s ability to combat bacterial infections linked to pneumonia.

The people at the greatest risk of pneumonia are seniors over the age of 65. Most often inflammation of the lungs in older people is linked to an infection of Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria.

As you age, the efficiency of your immune system slips and makes you more vulnerable to the invasions of pathogenic bacteria. And as your body tries to fight off these infections with a type of white blood cells called neutrophils, those cells can accumulate in the lungs.

Unfortunately, as the neutrophils collect in the lungs, they can lead to inflammation and destruction of lung tissue if they are not removed. And aging can compromise the immune system’s ability to dispose of these cells.

“Earlier studies have shown that vitamin E can help regulate the aging body’s immune system,” says researcher Elsa N. Bou Ghanem. “but our present research is the first study to demonstrate that dietary vitamin E regulates neutrophil entry into the lungs (of lab animals), and so dramatically reduces inflammation, and helps fight off infection by this common type of bacteria.”

In this research, older animals fed the human equivalent of 200 I.U. of the type of vitamin E called alpha-tocopherol could resist the bacteria much more effectively than animals who took in normal amounts of the nutrient.

“Approximately 900,000 Americans get pneumonia each year; as many as 400,000 patients are hospitalized; and approximately 50,000 die. Vaccines are available but cannot protect everyone, and antibiotic resistance is a problem, particularly for older adults with pneumonia. Our work provides a better understanding of how nutrition can play a role in modulating how the immune system responds to infection,” says researcher John M. Leong.

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