The immune system, which has the job of making the body immune to infection and disease, consists of the bone marrow, thymus gland, spleen, lymph nodes, and tonsils. Lymphocytes, or white blood cells, are produced in the bone marrow. Some of these cells travel to the thymus, mature into T cells, and are then sent into the bloodstream to become "killer" or "helper" T cells. Killer T cells reject foreign tissue and destroy viruses, fungi, and parasites, whereas helper T cells assist another group of white cells known as B cells. B cells are lymphocytes that have traveled from the bone marrow to mature in the spleen or lymph nodes. At maturity, B cells enter the bloodstream, where they produce antibodies to resist bacteria. In addition to the two types of lymphocytes, two other types of cells that contribute to immunity are monocytes and leukocytes.
The effectiveness of white blood cells, and hence the efficiency with which the body is able to eliminate foreign substances, decreases with aging. Even after an immunization injection, the immune systems of older adults take longer to erect defenses against specific diseases. The number of T and B cells is not affected by the aging process, but the number of cells failing to mature increases and their functioning becomes less efficient. The lessened effectiveness of B cells is seen in the production of fewer antibodies and an impairment of their ability to differentiate between foreign invaders and the body's own cells. Consequently, the antibodies may attack the cells of the body itself, a so-called autoimmune disorder.
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