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You are here: Biology of Aging >

Mechanisms of Aging: Inflammation

Inflammation is one of those physiological mechanisms that make you think that nature has a twisted sense of humor. Inflammation is a vital defense mechanism essential for our survival and yet it seems to contribute to our aging and degenerative disease.

Inflammation is the first response of the immune system to infection or irritation. Without inflammation, we won't be able to survive in a hostile world infested with dangerous microorganisms. In fact, people whose capacity for inflammation is suppressed (by drugs or due to immune system malfunction) could develop life-threatening infection even from ordinarily innocuous microorganisms. Inflammation involves a number of responses aimed at destroying or at least slowing down invading pathogens.

Inflammation is characterized by a number of phenomena, including increase in local blood flow, migration and activation of the immune cells in the affected area, release of large amounts of free radicals, destruction of normal tissue, deposit of scar tissue and so-forth.

Ideally, inflammation should clear out the infection and then subside to allow normal tissue to be rebuilt. If infection remains, inflammation may become chronic and linger for weeks or even years. Sometimes, chronic inflammation may persist even without significant infection - either because the inflammation response has become too sensitive or because the immune system begins to perceive some of the body's own tissues as foreign. As it turns out, aging is associated with the increase in both of these unwelcome forms of chronic inflammation. As we age, we tend to develop autoimmune conditions as well as other forms of chronic inflammation. The majority of older people have some degree of low-grade inflammation and/or mild autoimmune disorders (and some have moderate or severe forms, of course). It is no wonder that chronic inflammation contributes to the aging process because it floods tissues with free radicals and promotes the destruction of normal cells. Like most mechanisms of aging, chronic inflammation creates a vicious cycle. The aging process tends to increase the level of chronic inflammation and that, in turn, accelerates aging.

While chronic inflammation contributes to the aging of many tissues, it is particularly prominent in the aging of the cardiovascular and nervous system - the two systems most vital to our survival. Inflammation is now recognized as one of the key risk factors for heart disease and stroke, an even bigger risk factor than high cholesterol or homocysteine, according to some estimates. Inflammation is also viewed as a contributor to common age-related neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

While keeping inflammation under control should be a part of anyone's comprehensive anti-aging strategy, some people are more prone to chronic inflammation than others. Hence, your first step should probably be to estimate how much inflammation you may have in your system.

You can start with widely available tests: ESR, fibrinogen, and CRP. ESR (erythrocyte sedimentation rate) is a general, albeit relatively insensitive, inflammation indicator. Fibrinogen is a part of the blood-clotting cascade: its level reflects your blood clotting capacity. Excessive clotting is an indicator of inflammation and a cardiovascular risk factor of its own. CRP is a general inflammation indicator, but is far more sensitive than ESR. It is the primary marker for evaluating inflammation-related cardiovascular risk.

CRP levels correlate with cardiovascular risk as follows:

  • Less than 1 mg/L (low risk)
  • 1-3 mg/L (medium risk)
  • Greater than 3 mg/L (high risk)

Additional inflammation markers known to correlate with cardiovascular risk include neopterin, matrix metalloproteinase-9 (MMP-9) and soluble intercellular adhesion molecules (sICAM). The test for markers of inflammation in the nervous system are less developed but oftentimes people who have low-grade cardiovascular inflammation would have some low-grade inflammation in the nervous system and vice versa. There are also many highly specialized tests for specific immune mediators whose levels correlate with various forms of inflammation. For example, inflammation associated with obesity often causes increased levels of the immune mediators IL-6, IL-8, and TNF-a.

If your inflammation markers are elevated, taking steps to bring them down is usually a good idea for both health and longevity. If your markers are normal but you are over forty, some basic anti-inflammatory steps may be worthwhile anyway.

The basic steps to reduce inflammation in the body include:

  • Better dental hygiene. Low-grade gum infections are extremely common and have a major negative impact on heart disease and possibly other conditions.
  • Exercise. Evidence indicates that regular exercise improves low-grade chronic inflammation. (It may worsen acute or active chronic inflammation, so be careful.)
  • Weight loss. Obesity appears to increase the overall level of inflammation in the body, while bringing your weight back to the optimum (BMI 20-25) does the opposite.
  • No smoking. Smoking floods your systems with free radicals and irritants, promoting inflammation and other forms of damage.
  • Anti-inflammatory diet. Diet has an impact on the overall level of inflammation in your body. A number of dietary adjustments can help minimize inflammation, including the following: reducing or eliminating saturated and trans fat; increasing the intake of omega-3 fat (fish, fish oil, flaxseed oil); increasing consumption of varied multicolored fresh fruits and vegetables. Also, anti-inflammatory diet should be high in fiber and favor low-glycemic foods. Some research indicates that animal protein may be somewhat proinflammatory. To reduce inflammation, it may useful to get most of your protein from non-animal sources like fish, soy, beans and nuts.

Further steps may include agents, whether natural or synthetic, that target one or more aspects of inflammation. Every such agent has its own risk and benefits and may be beneficial for some and risky for others. The agents that have been proposed or used include COX-inhibitors (e.g. aspirin), statins (e.g. lipitor), proteases (e.g. serrapepditase, nattokinase, bromelain), LOX-inhibitors (e.g. acetyl-boswellic acid) and others. Which of these agents, if any, are appropriate for general human anti-aging and life extension remains to be researched.


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