Aging and chronic inflammation turn out to be so interconnected, the research world has a new term: “inflammaging.”
It doesn’t feel fair, does it? Just as we’re getting wise to the world, the world is taking its toll on our bodies. Wouldn’t it be great if there was something we could do to slow that part down—not just to put the brakes on the cosmetic, surface effects of aging (although yes, those are a bummer), but to preserve the core of well-being and health, from the inside out, for just a bit longer.
However, in the past two decades, science has started to look at many conditions associated with getting older in a whole new way. Inflammation has also become a research hotspot, since it’s now known to be an invisible common denominator for an enormous number of age-related chronic and acute conditions. The two conditions, age and chronic inflammation, are so linked that researchers dubbed this phenomenon “inflammaging.”
It’s now considered a driving or accelerating factor in at least half of the top ten causes of mortality in the U.S., including heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes. Inflammaging can make it more likely that you develop these conditions, and also more likely that they progress faster. It can determine how fast you age, strongly influence your quality of life, and may even have a say in how long that life is.
The complex mechanisms behind inflammaging are not yet fully understood. We do know that as we age, our immune systems transform. This invisible change dramatically increases the number of proinflammatory cytokines circulating in our systems. Other theories point to a degradation of the sensors that tell the immune system that the body is being attacked, or the increase in molecular “garbage,” or molecules within the body that have been damaged, altered, or are simply extraneous.
Why are we only hearing about this now? Part of the answer has to do with recent strides made in medicine. Whereas in past centuries the top dangers to humans came from outside us—like viruses, insect-borne diseases, and bacterial infections—science has become so good at warding off these potential attackers that we now tend to die of things that come from inside us, such as inflammation. (For more, read these seven myths about inflammation.)
So, yes, what you suspected is true: after we age past 50, it’s good to keep even more of an eye on living an anti-inflammatory lifestyle. Fortunately, that lifestyle means making lots of choices that truly nourish your body, mind, and spirit—and that’s never a bad thing.
What You Can Do
The chronic inflammation that comes with age is slightly different in nature from other kinds of chronic inflammation. In addition to all the other things you can do to reduce inflammation, such as eating anti-inflammatory foods and reducing stress, here are three tools that may be specific to the inflammaging toolbox.
- Aerobic exercise. Research published in the journal PLoS One showed reduced levels of inflammaging in mice who had access to wheel runs across their lifetimes, versus sedentary controls.
- Caloric restriction. While cutting caloric intake has been shown to extend life and reduce the markers of inflammaging—possibly through the changes it causes in gut flora—this approach should only be undertaken under the supervision of your doctor.
- Protein intake. Researchers at Tufts University found that adults who made sure to have an adequate protein intake—particularly from plants, since some kinds of meat have been found to promote inflammation—had fewer biomarkers associated with inflammaging.
Read the rest of Cynthia’s series on inflammation: