How to age gracefully involves controlling inflammation that can cause cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, cancer, depression and more
Some older people can appear to be quite a bit younger than their actual age might lead you to believe. They may also be more vital and active than you might expect for a person of their age – an example of how to age gracefully.
So what’s their secret to maintaining such a youthful appearance and healthy lifestyle? Although it is true that part of the answer may be genetic, these active seniors have also learned how to maintain their immune system to help reduce chronic inflammation, which can be responsible for a number of health issues common in old age. How does the immune system age, and what can be done to slow it down?
Innate and adaptive immunity
The immune system comprises two different types of immunity. Innate immunity is the body’s ability to combat pathogens, while adaptive immunity is responsible for remembering information about specific pathogens, so that the body knows how to fight them if they recur.
As the body ages, innate immunity may no longer be able to turn off the acute inflammatory process after it has successfully fought off a pathogen or healed an injury. This may lead to chronic inflammation, which can be responsible for a number of conditions common among seniors, including cancer, diabetes, and arthritis.
The adaptive immunity process may forget how to fight off particular pathogens. This double hit against the immune system as a result of aging is known as immunosenescence. A 2018 article in the journal Frontiers in Immunology explained that chronic inflammation associated with health issues common in older age is known as inflammaging and is the result of aging cells that are not as effective in fighting off pathogens.1
Another article from the same year in Nature Reviews Cardiology summarized the literature on the subject of inflammaging, as it pertains to cardiovascular disease.2 From their review, the researchers concluded that chronic inflammation in old age could be caused by genetic susceptibility, obesity, changes to gut microbiota oxidative stress, and chronic infections. Furthermore, this type of inflammation is a risk factor for not only cardiovascular disease, but other conditions, such as chronic kidney disease, diabetes mellitus, cancer, depression, and dementia2 – not exactly the image of how to age gracefully.
Improving the immune system and how to age gracefully
Now that we understand how the immune system ages, how can we improve its health over the long term?
A 2019 article in the journal Nature Reviews Immunology discusses how regular physical activity can improve the immune response of older individuals.3 Specifically, strengthening muscle mass increases production of certain proteins that can reduce inflammation and prolong proper immune response.
As part of its review of literature on the effects of regular physical activity or exercise on the immune system of older individuals, the authors of the article noted: “Taken together, these studies suggest that the emergence of certain features of immunosenescence and the extent of immune remodeling is likely to be heavily influenced by insufficient physical activity as humans age.”3
Following a healthy diet will also help keep the immune system in top shape, particularly if it is modeled upon the Mediterranean diet, which includes large amounts of fresh fruit, leafy vegetables, and olive oil; moderate amounts of fish, poultry, and dairy; and very little red meat or added sugar.
A 2018 review article in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society examined the effect of a Mediterranean-type diet on how long it took before onset of frailty.3 The researchers found that those subjects who followed a Mediterranean-type diet, were less than half as likely to become frail over the course of four years than those who did not follow such a diet.
They theorized that the difference is likely attributed to the fact that a Mediterranean-type diet is thought to reduce inflammation: “Frail individuals have higher levels of inflammatory markers, and inflammation is considered to be closely associated with frailty. A Mediterranean diet is associated with low levels of inflammatory markers and may reduce frailty risk through this mechanism.”
Although it can be easy to chalk up a youthful senior’s appearance to a hidden self-portrait in their attic or a fountain of youth, the truth is that their bodies are still going through the same aging process as everyone else’s. They have simply learned how to protect their immune system to benefit their bodies for as long as possible and mastered how to age gracefully.
- Rea IM, Gibson DS, McGilligan V, et al. Age and age-related diseases: Role of inflammation triggers and cytokines. Frontiers in Immunology. 2018;9:586. Published 2018 Apr 9.
- Ferrucci L, Fabbri E. Inflammageing: Chronic inflammation in ageing, cardiovascular disease, and frailty. Nature Reviews Cardiology. 2018;15(9):505-522.
- Duggal NA, Niemiro G, Harridge SDR, et al. Can physical activity ameliorate immunosenescence and thereby reduce age-related multi-morbidity? Nature Reviews Immunology. 2019 Sep;19(9):563-572.
- Kojima G, Avgerinou C, Iliffe S, Walters K. Adherence to Mediterranean Diet reduces incident frailty risk: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of the American Geriatric Society. 2018 Apr;66(4):783-788. Epub 2018 Jan 11.