Allergies : Seniors and Food Allergies

While most people associate food allergies with kids, they can develop at any age -- and the gradual deterioration of the immune system as we get older can result in late-onset allergies to foods that were tolerated in the past.

As the immune cells involved in food allergy reactions age and their function becomes impaired, the signs of a food allergy may be diminished, which can delay medical attention. This makes late-onset food allergies a major concern in older individuals.

As many as 10 percent of people 65 and older are believed to have food allergies, but the prevalence of late-onset allergies is likely underestimated and underdiagnosed. Malnutrition, which is more common in the elderly population, plays a critical role in maintaining the immune system. An insufficiency of three nutrients in particular -- vitamin D, iron, and zinc -- may negatively affect food-allergy reactions, so it's important for seniors to eat a well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet and correct nutritional deficiencies through supplementation.

Allergic reactions can range from mild to severe. According to Larissa T. Brophy, MS, RDN, LD, the elderly are less likely to experience anaphylaxis but may report mild symptoms that could be related to numerous causes. Symptoms can involve the skin, eyes, mouth or lips, GI tract, nasal passages, or respiratory system. They may be mistaken for insomnia, environmental allergies, viruses, or the general effects of aging.

Undiagnosed food allergies can contribute to inflammation and malabsorption, exacerbating the risk of frailty. A dietitian or health care practitioner specializing in food allergies may be able to detect an allergy and help identify the offending food. He or she can also ensure that the person is getting adequate nutrition once the food is eliminated.

Anaphylaxis requires injectable epinephrine followed by immediate medical attention. But for more mild symptoms and to help avoid late-onset food allergies, it's essential to support the immune system. In addition to a daily multivitamin, Brophy recommends coenzyme Q10, probiotics, and omega-3 fats.

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