Calling For Backup

Calling For Backup

You may have heard about a recent study in which patients who received the pneumonia vaccine and later developed pneumonia were slightly less likely to die from complications of the disease compared to pneumonia patients who had not been vaccinated.

Not dying – that’s a good thing, no question. But did you spot what’s wrong with this picture? The pneumonia vaccine is obviously designed to prevent pneumonia. But this study focused on patients who received the vaccine and still came down with pneumonia. Which is not really surprising, given the vaccine’s poor track record. In 2003 I told you about a study in which medical records for more than 47,000 subjects over the age of 65 were followed for four years. The conclusion: The pneumonia vaccination didn’t reduce the risk of pneumonia.

The reason for this is fairly simple – vaccine or no vaccine, it’s difficult to prevent pneumonia with an ineffective immune system. The remedy? Call in zinc for backup.

Once every 75 years

In a study I told you about earlier this year, researchers at Wayne State University School of Medicine noted that zinc deficiency, susceptibility to infections, and increased oxidative stress are common in people over the age of 55. The results of the study showed that one year of zinc supplementation (45 mg daily) in older subjects reduced the incidence of infections, inflammation, and oxidative stress compared to placebo.

A new study from the Jean Mayer US Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University takes zinc research a step further.


  • The USDA team recruited residents from 33 nursing homes in Boston
  • Half the subjects received daily supplements containing 50 percent of the recommended dietary allowance of several vitamins and minerals (including zinc), and half received a placebo
  • At the end of the one-year intervention, more than 400 subjects were given blood tests to evaluate zinc levels
  • Results showed that subjects with normal zinc levels had less incidence and duration of pneumonia, less antibiotic use, and fewer days of antibiotic use compared to subjects who had low blood levels of zinc

This is where most researchers caution that further study is necessary before supplements can be recommended. But the USDA team went off-script with this note: “Zinc supplementation to maintain normal serum zinc concentrations in the elderly may help reduce the incidence of pneumonia and associated morbidity.”

A government-led study that recommends supplements to save lives? We’ll probably see Halley’s comet again before we see another one of these.

A dozen on the half shell

Just for the record, the National Institutes of Health official recommended dietary allowance of zinc is 11 mg for adult males and 8 mg for adult females. Cut that in half and it’s an awfully meager dollop of zinc – especially compared to the 45 mg per day in the Wayne State study.

In any case, talk to your doctor before adding more zinc to your daily regimen. And if he’s not up to speed on zinc specifics, you can mention these highlights:

  • Zinc is one of the key nutrients needed for DNA reproduction and repair
  • Zinc is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory
  • Zinc inhibits abnormal blood clotting that contributes to heart disease
  • Zinc helps maintain healthy vision and reduces the risk of age-related macular degeneration

And of course, we can now add to that impressive list: Zinc has been shown to reduce the risk of pneumonia and associated morbidity.

Dietary sources of zinc include red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, whole grains, and dairy products. But the two zinc powerhouses are oysters and cabbage – especially oysters, which also happen to be a good source of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids.

“Serum Zinc and Pneumonia in Nursing Home Elderly” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 86, No. 4, October 2007,
“Zinc Supplementation Decreases Incidence of Infections in the Elderly: Effect of Zinc on Generation of Cytokines and Oxidative Stress” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 85, No. 3, March 2007,