For older adults, there are a number of foods to avoid to decrease the chance of foodborne illness. Since the immune system declines with age, fighting off bacterial pathogens in foods could be more difficult for an older adult than younger adults, who might end up with nothing worse than some passing diarrhea or a low-grade fever.
Immunity Declines With Age
Some people over aged 60 may have atrophic gastritis, a condition that could make it easier for harmful bacteria to survive the journey through the gastrointestinal tract. The immune system starts to lose efficiency at a certain point, too. But, the rate at which that happens differs from person to person. There's no way of knowing for certain who is going to be affected when—or how strongly. So if you are in your golden years, how do you know if your immune system has weakened to the point that you should take extra precautions when it comes to food safety and listen to government alerts? If you notice that you are getting infections that you did not used to get, then that may be a sign. But no matter how healthy you may feel, it is good to be aware of the possibilities of getting certain diseases and to be thoughtful of the foods you eat.
Food for Thought
As the immune system declines over the years, it is wise to consider whether the food you are eating could put you at risk for an infection from harmful foodborne bacteria. Older adults in nursing homes or those with vulnerable immune systems obviously have to be careful about what they eat. But healthy older adults should also make conscious, informed decisions about food safety. Taking a calculated risk—or opting for zero risk is better than ignoring risk altogether.
Give thoughtful consideration to the following foods:
Uncooked, refrigerated foods —soft unpasteurized cheese such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined and Mexican-style varieties; deli meats and other ready-to-eat meat and poultry products; smoked fish, such as smoked salmon; refrigerated pates and meat spreads
All of these foods can contain bacteria. Cooking kills the harmful microorganisms, but none of these foods are eaten heated. The bacteria can cause everything from flu-like symptoms to meningitis, a life-threatening inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord.
Foods made with unpasteurized raw eggs —Caesar salad dressing, hollandaise sauce, egg nog, key lime pie
Raw, unpasteurized eggs may contain bacteria that can cause nausea and diarrhea, but it can also lead to serious complications such as severe dehydration. Runny eggs and sunny sides-up can contain bacteria too. Eggs that are runny are not exposed to enough heat to kill the bacteria that may be present, and sunny sides-up would need to be flipped over to make sure the bacteria are killed on both sides.
Raw mollusks —oysters, clams, and mussels
These foods sometimes contain bacteria that can cause severe dehydration and stomach cramps or fever and blood poisoning.They may also contain a hepatitis virus.
These curly vegetable threads that often appear atop salads or tucked into sandwiches can contain bacteria. The high level of moisture sprouts need to grow provides the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive. Since the sprouts are typically eaten raw, the pathogens—which can cause kidney failure—don't get killed during cooking. Washing thoroughly doesn't rid them of all the bacteria either.
Fresh, unpasteurized juice
Some juice may be unpasteurized, meaning that it has not been treated to kill harmful bacteria. It may cause foodborne illness, ranging from diarrhea and stomach cramps to more severe symptoms.
Coping with Illness
You may still become sick despite taking these safety precautions. If you think you might have a food-related illness, contact your doctor or go to the emergency room right away.
Fight BAC—Partnership for Food Safety and Education
United States Department of Agriculture
Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education
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Food safety for older adults. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/PeopleAtRisk/ucm312705.htm. Updated December 18, 2014. Accessed February 5, 2016.
Listeria (listeriosis). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/listeria/definition.html. Updated November 20, 2014. Accessed February 5, 2016.
Older adults and food safety. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service website. Available at: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/ab56957a-3f3c-4b67-aece-44ef1890b0fd/Older_Adults_and_Food_Safety.pdf?MOD=AJPERES. Updated July 2011. Accessed February 5, 2016.
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Last reviewed February 2016 by Michael Woods, MD