For older individuals, there are a number of foods to avoid to decrease the chance of foodborne illness.
While Listeria may be the culprit that renders certain foods risky, some may have Salmonella, while others could contain E. coli,
Vibrio vulnificus, or other bacterial pathogens. But since the immune system declines with age, fighting off any of these infectious "bugs" could be much more difficult for an older adult than for a young or middle-aged adult, who might end up unscathed, or at least with nothing worse than some passing diarrhea or a low-grade fever.
Some people over aged 60 may experience atrophic gastritis, a condition of insufficient stomach acid 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? Some experts advise that if you notice that you are getting infections that you did not used to get, then that may be an indicator. But no matter how healthy you may feel, it is good to be aware of the possibilities of acquiring certain diseases and to be thoughtful of the foods you eat.
So as you enter your 60s, 70s, and 80s and the immune system declines, it is wise to consider a little more carefully whether the food you are eating could put you at risk for an infection from harmful foodborne bacteria. The frail elderly in nursing homes or with vulnerable immune systems because of, say, chemotherapy to treat a cancer, obviously have to be careful about what they eat. But the well-elderly should make conscious, informed decisions about food safety too. 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 a type of bacteria called
Listeria monocytogenes. 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. These days it is becoming more common to find certain soft cheese, however, such as feta, that have been heat-treated through pasteurization.
Foods made with unpasteurized raw eggs—Caesar salad dressing, hollandaise sauce, egg nog, key lime pie
Raw, unpasteurized eggs (as opposed to the eggs in bottled Caesar salad dressing, for example) may contain
bacteria, which can bring on nausea and diarrhea but can also lead to serious complications such as severe dehydration. Runny eggs and sunny sides-up can contain
Salmonella 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 (and become plain old fried eggs) to make sure the bacteria are killed on both sides.
Raw mollusks—oysters, clams, and mussels
These foods sometimes contain
Vibrio parahaemolyticus, which could cause everything from severe dehydration to stomach cramps to fever to blood poisoning. People who may have low stomach acid are particularly vulnerable and should never eat raw mollusks, even if they come from a reputable restaurant or fish dealer.
These curly vegetable "threads" that often appear atop salads or tucked into sandwiches can contain the same bacteria that make undercooked burgers a risk for everyone:
E. Coli 0157:H7. Bean, radish, and mung sprouts may pose a risk as well, according to the United States Food and Drug Administration. The high level of moisture sprouts need to grow provides the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive, and 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—from a roadside stand or juice bar
Some juice may be unpasteurized, meaning that it has not been treated to kill harmful bacteria, including
E. Coli. It may cause foodborne illness, ranging from diarrhea and stomach cramps to much, much worse.