What can we do?
While researchers sort out the factors that lead low-grade chronic inflammation to increase as we age, there may be steps we can take on our own to slow it down.
For example, it may pay to watch your waistline. A potbelly in some respects resembles a huge gland capable of secreting inflammation-producing proteins into the circulation. That’s because fat cells are notoriously capable of releasing hormones and other chemicals like IL-6 and TNF-alpha, which drive potentially aggressive immune cells called macrophages wild. And belly fat is loaded with shocking numbers of macrophages. Plus, the pattern-recognition receptors that are the primary initiators of the inflammatory response can, during particularly inflammatory times, sprout on fat cells, too. The chronic low-grade inflammation and macrophage infiltration typifying belly fat have been linked to both Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Vaccinations are another smart bet. “We think vaccination is one of the best interventions we have to prevent immune aging,” says Cornelia Weyand, MD, professor and chief of immunology and rheumatology at Stanford. “Every time we have an infection, we pay a price. The more we can keep the immune system from being called into action, the better we can preserve it.”
Finally, your grandma was right about dietary fiber — which essentially translates to “complex carbohydrates we can’t digest but our gut-dwelling microbes can.” Justin Sonnenburg, PhD, associate professor of microbiology and immunology, has found evidence that a lack of fiber in the diet may be, among other things, forcing our gut-resident microbes to subsist by scavenging sugar molecules from the long strings of them composing the mucus layer that lines our gut. The consequent thinning of the intestinal barrier, he thinks, may provide a portal allowing gut microbes to break out into the bloodstream, helping to induce a simmering inflammatory environment.
“Good fences make good neighbors,” he says.