Inflammation affects you differently as you age. Scientists call it ‘inflammaging’. Advances in immunology are lending new insights into how we can allow good inflammation to proceed while squashing the bad that can come from too much of it. For now, there are simple steps people can take to address ‘inflammaging’ in their bodies, experts say, including exercise. Read on for more information.
What you need to know about ‘inflammaging’
As we age, we will often experience an increased level of discomfort, including achy joints, wounds that heal slower, and a rising risk for cancer, heart disease, dementia, arthritis, and other illnesses. These instances cause an increase in inflammatory molecules throughout a lifetime. The link between age, inflammation, and disease has been well established. Scientists have called it ‘inflammaging’.
Researchers have now begun to share how someone can interfere in the inflammatory process. The work suggests interventions ranging from new drugs to new motivations for healthy habits like exercise that can slow the aging process, said Ron DePinho, a cancer biology, and aging researcher at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Although many people fixate on the need to reduce inflammation, it is more important to sustain the appropriate amount of it as a means toward extending quality rather than quantity of life, says Judith Campisi, a cell biologist at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, an independent research facility in Novato, Calif.
“What happens with age is you lose control of inflammation,” she says. “Even if you’re five years old, you will never heal a wound without an initial inflammatory response. It’s not always bad. It’s sometimes good.”
The increase in inflammation
50 is generally when inflammation starts to increase, with a dramatic shift after 60.
“That uptick tracks closely with disease trends. Beginning in the early sixties, risks rise substantially for the most common chronic diseases of aging: cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and dementia,” says DePinho.
Starting at 65, the number of people with Alzheimer’s doubles every five years. In the U.S., 80 percent of adults over 65 have at least one chronic condition. By age 85, a third of people may have Alzheimer’s, while a third of men and one-fourth of women have had cancer. People with more inflammation in their bodies have a higher risk of disease.”
There are a dozen biological changes that correspond with age. All of these are associated with inflammation, and inflammation is considered a pillar of aging, says Luigi Ferrucci, a geriatrician and epidemiologist at the Intramural Research Program of the NIH’s National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, Maryland.
”For example, as people get older, their immune cells lose their protective functions and stop doing the job of fighting off invaders, turning into what scientists call senescent cells. Other kinds of cells can also become senescent in response to stress. They cease replicating, no longer do their jobs, and start to secrete powerful inflammatory molecules that cause yet more cells to become senescent in a self-perpetuating cycle.”
The development of anti-aging interventions that target inflammation is quite difficult. This is because our bodies need a certain level of inflammation to function properly. Trying to tackle chronic inflammation of aging with general anti-inflammatory drugs, for example, could make people more susceptible to disease by impairing the inflammation that our bodies need to stay healthy.
“When you have an infection, if you don’t have inflammation, you’re going to die,” Ferrucci says. “Shutting down inflammation with a bomb like a corticosteroid or some monoclonal antibodies works. It’s also quite dangerous.”
One of the most promising new strategies for dealing with inflammaging is attacking senescent cells, experts say. In mice, a low-dose combination of two drugs, Dasatinib and Quercetin, appears to be particularly effective at getting rid of these deadbeat cells and reducing inflammation in the intestines with the potential to extend lives. Clinical trials are now underway with these and other so-called senolytics to see if the same kinds of compounds might kill senescent cells and break the cycle of inflammation and disease in people, too, says DePinho.
“Tissues retain a remarkable capacity to renew themselves if you remove the underlying instigators of the aging process,” DePinho says. “As we discover the nuances of inflammation,” he says, “then it may be possible to find drugs that do not shut down inflammation completely.”
Habits to fight aging
There are a handful of steps one can take to address inflammation in their own body, one being exercise. Regular physical activity enhances DNA repair, improves mitochondrial function, activates sirtuins, and, studies show, can reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. Regular vigorous activity is best, but as little as 15 minutes a day can make a difference, DePinho says, and even leisure activities help.
Your diet also plays a massive role in reducing chronic inflammation, according to a handful of studies that support eating a Mediterranean-style diet with an emphasis on whole grains, produce, nuts, and fish. Eating a wide variety of vegetables may also help sustain the gut microbiome, which tends to become less resilient and contributes to rising levels of inflammation with age.
Body fat releases cytokines that promote inflammation, DePinho adds, so using exercise and diet to control weight can have extra benefits. He also advises people to avoid or quit smoking, a habit known to increase DNA damage and drive an inflammatory response. Finding ways to relax is another useful goal, as chronic stress has been linked to shortened telomeres, accelerated aging, and inflammatory diseases. Adequate sleep and meditation can help reduce stress, DePinho says.
Don’t underestimate healthy habits
Healthy habits like these are important throughout life, Ferrucci says, but they become especially important as the mechanisms that protect our cells from damage become less functional with age. That accumulating damage is a key source. “Intervening in any possible way becomes more essential as you become older,” he says. Therefore, don’t underestimate healthy habits like exercise, eating right, and good sleep. They might just be saving your life.