Most people don’t think of the U.S. Postal Service as the fountain of youth. But 90-year-old Ralph Rostock believes the 30 years he spent working as a mail carrier primed his mind and body for longevity. “It was all that walking,” Rostock says. “And I’m still walking—on my own, without assistance.”
Now happily ensconced at the Watermark at Bellingham, Rostock and his wife—who’s also 90—moved to West Chester at the end of 2019. They wanted to be closer to their two children and four grandchildren. “Then the plague hit in March,” Rostock says. “We didn’t see any of them in person— not for a long time.”
He did see people in the Watermark, albeit masked and socially distanced. He stayed physically active and mentally engaged. He continues to walk outside every day, keeping to his deeply ingrained mail carrier routine. He also uses the Watermark’s gym four or five times per week, logging time on the treadmill, bicycle and elliptical machines. “I do that to keep my arms and legs in shape,” says Rostock.
Rostock is also a regular at the Watermark’s morning coffee and trivia meetings. When he’s not doing that, he’s probably reading. “I’m a history buff,” he says. “It keeps the mind sharp.”
Fortunately, neither Rostock nor his wife were diagnosed with COVID-19. In recent weeks, new data has been released showing just how lethal this coronavirus has been to older people in the United States. In April, AARP reported that 95 percent of Americans killed by this coronavirus were age 50 or older. The Centers for Disease Control reported that, in the U.S., eight out of 10 COVID-19 deaths have been in adults 65 years and up. People 85 years and older were 95 times more likely to require hospitalization if they contracted the virus.
Somber statistics indeed, and Dr. Canaan Arceneaux saw them borne out during his residency at Christ Hospital in Jersey City, N.J. From April through June 2020, he worked on the hospital’s COVID floors. “It was the Wild West,” recalls Arceneaux, who’s now a family medicine practitioner at Trinity Health’s Mercy Medical Associates at Springfield.
The fact remains that our immune systems become less efficient as we age. “Think of the immune system as a car you’ve had for 20 years that doesn’t run the same as it does when you took it off the lot,” Arceneaux says. “As we get older, the car battery can fail, you can get a flat tire, etc. It’s the same with your body mounting a lesser immune response.”
“Your immune system is a reflection of your habits. During the pandemic, many of our habits were changed.”—Dr. Asare Christian
Why don’t our immune systems get smarter and more efficient as they age? “Your body does learn how to process things,” says Arceneaux. “However, you don’t have the same number of immune cells as a younger person, so the process starts to wane.”
Age isn’t the only factor. “Your immune system is a reflection of your habits,” said Dr. Asare Christian, a physiatrist who recently opened his Aether Medicine practice in Wayne. “During the pandemic, many of our habits were changed, but I believe that diet, exercise, nutrition and alcohol intake are critical to having a robust immune system.”
Drinking too much can directly impact your immune system. “Alcohol has to be processed in your liver, which takes energy from your gut, where your microbiomes are,” Christian says. “When your body is in balance, the energy is where it needs to be for optimal health.”
Exercise is another factor. It keep muscles toned and hormones balanced. That helps with everything from weight control to mental health. Nearly 70 percent of Christian’s patients are over 55, and chronic pain is their chief complaint. It limits their mobility, and that impacts their immune system. “It’s all related to functional medicine and thinking of the body holistically,” he says. “There isn’t one answer to boosting immunity. There are many.”
Rostock agrees. Vaccinated and able to see his family, he’s sticking to his diet and exercise regimen. He does have a glass of wine or a beer occasionally, but moderation is his byword. “And I’ll keep walking,” he says. “That’s the key to everything.”