What is Inflammaging?
Inflammaging is the accelerated aging process that happens due to increases in inflammation in the body as we age. The term inflammaging was introduced by Franceschi and others. The word itself is simply a combination of “inflammation” and “aging”.
As discussed in the previous blog, our aging bodies can regulate inflammation less due to lifestyle factors like poor diet, chronic stress, lack of exercise, and immune system dysfunction. Many older adults develop inflammaging due to lifestyle choices and age-related changes in bodily function. A study published in 2019 indicates aging is associated with the expression of more genes involved in inflammation. Those who experience inflammaging are at higher risk for inflammation-related diseases like heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, kidney disease, stroke, and cancer.
The following sections explore what inflammation is, why inflammation turns into inflammaging, and factors that contribute to inflammaging.
Inflammation’s Role in the Healing Process
To understand inflammaging, it is essential to first understand that our bodies need inflammation to stay healthy. Inflammation is an essential part of the immune system’s response to injury, infections, or exposure to toxins. A study published in 2018 describes the inflammation response as a four-part process:
1) Cells recognize harmful stimuli like bacteria, viruses, or physical injury
2) Cells activate pro-inflammation pathways
3) Pro-inflammatory markers are released to recruit pro-inflammatory cells
4) Pro-inflammatory cells move to the site of harmful stimuli to remove damaged cells and heal the body
After healing is complete, the immune system works to reduce inflammation by releasing anti-inflammatory cells and markers. These cells and markers re-balance the levels of inflammatory markers to take our bodies out of a pro-inflammatory state. This step is essential for preventing chronic inflammation. When the immune system has difficulties regulating inflammation, the negative effects of inflammaging are more likely.
The Pro-Inflammatory Shift: How Aging Impacts Our Immune System
There are many factors that cause inflammation to turn into inflammaging, and aging itself is a key player. As we age, our body experiences many changes. These age-related changes to our immune system are a major contributor to inflammaging. A 2020 study reported that immune system cells become less effective as we age. Some examples of immune cell changes seen in aging include:
- Release of more inflammatory markers in the brain by microglia (cells that regulate brain development and repair)
- During tissue repair, there is a lower volume of regulatory T cells (cells that help regulate inflammation)
- In response to infection, there is reduced function of B cells (cells that create antibodies)
With these age-related changes, our immune system shifts towards a pro-inflammatory state. This causes more pro-inflammatory markers in the blood and tissues and leads to chronic inflammation.
These age-related changes in our immune system also cause more difficulties in fighting off infections, healing injuries, and even fighting cancer cells. This causes our bodies to take longer to heal, which means pro-inflammatory markers are present in the blood and tissues for longer.
Although age is known to be associated with a decline in immune function, lifestyle modifications may slow the decline.
Lifestyle management is essential for maintaining good health throughout our lives. A key study indicates that poor lifestyle management is associated with greater effects of inflammaging on our immune systems. So, what are some lifestyle factors that cause inflammaging?
- Poor Diet
- Exposure to Pollutants
- Chronic Stress
- Lack of Exercise
The Role of Diet in Inflammaging
Doctors state that your kitchen is a key place where we can act to limit inflammaging. A report from Harvard University states that a diet high in sugars, alcohol, red or processed meats, and fatty or fried foods causes our bodies to be in a state that promotes inflammation.
So, how do these foods contribute to inflammaging? Various studies report that excessive sugars, red or fatty meats, and alcohol cause pro-inflammatory markers to be released and circulated throughout our bodies.
These foods also cause changes in the gut microbiome. Simply put, the gut microbiome is a collection of bacteria and microorganisms that live in your digestive system. A healthy gut microbiome is essential because some microbiota produce anti-inflammatory chemicals while others release essential enzymes that help us digest foods like dairy. A review published in 2020 states that a poor diet alters the gut microbiome to increase the level of pro-inflammatory markers.
Dr. Lori Shemek, a nutrition expert, discusses in a blog that we can combat inflammaging by having a diet that is low in pro-inflammatory foods and high in anti-inflammatory foods like leafy green vegetables, fruits, nuts, and lean proteins. Spices like turmeric, garlic, cayenne pepper, and ginger also have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. Eating these foods and spices can increase the presence of anti-inflammatory markers and help balance the gut microbiome to combat inflammation.
The Role of Pollution in Inflammaging
Our physical environment also plays a role in inflammaging. Exposure to pollutants increases stress on our bodies. These pollutants include heavy metals (mercury, lead, and cadmium), certain types of gas (sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides), and other chemicals (bleach, pesticide, and microplastics).
A review published in 2017 indicates that exposure to environmental pollutants can cause DNA damage, oxidative stress, and mitochondrial dysfunction. This leads to increased activity of the immune system and a higher presence of pro-inflammatory markers, which can lead to inflammaging.
We can reduce our exposure to environmental pollutants by filtering our water, filtering our indoor air, and avoiding areas with high levels of pollution.
The Role of Chronic Stress in Inflammaging
Chronic stress can lead to inflammaging through several mechanisms. One mechanism is the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, a primary pathway activated in response to stress. This results in the release of cortisol and other stress-related hormones that promote inflammation. Consistent stress can cause high activity of this pathway and lead to an imbalance in the immune system to eventually cause inflammaging.
Another mechanism is the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline. These hormones can promote inflammation by activating immune cells and stimulating the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines.
Additionally, chronic stress can lead to oxidative stress, which is an imbalance between the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and the ability of the body to detoxify them. ROS can cause damage to cells and tissues, which can trigger an inflammatory response. Consuming food rich in antioxidants, like leafy greens, can help combat how much ROS affects the body.
Dr. Stephen Sideroff, an expert on inflammaging, often states that improving our resilience to external stress and difficulty, practicing meditation, and taking care of our mental health can reduce chronic stress and inflammaging.
The Role of Exercise in Inflammaging
Exercise has been noted to be essential for reducing inflammaging. Exercise improves immune function, increases anti-inflammatory marker production, and decreases pro-inflammatory marker production. Additionally, exercise can reduce oxidative stress and improve mitochondrial function, which can also help reduce inflammation.
A 2012 review indicated that older adults that exercise regularly have lower levels of pro-inflammatory markers in their blood compared to sedentary older adults. It was reported that exercise reduces the production of pro-inflammatory markers and increases production of anti-inflammatory markers.
Dr. Robert Lufkin, an expert on inflammaging, frequently discusses that regular exercise has anti-inflammatory effects on the body and can help reduce the risk of inflammaging. By exercising in a safe and effective manner, the impacts of inflammaging can be limited.
Daniel Chantigian, MS, is exploring the science, causes, and effects of inflammaging. This blog is the second part of a four-part series.
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