The chronic inflammation that gets us old…

5 min

Inflammation

This is one of the key concepts to understand ageing, and its effects on our body seem to depend on an imbalance between pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory factors. What does this mean and where does this hypothesis come from?

When inflammation is a problem

Our immune system has been “modelled” by evolution: it is quite efficient in the face of acute infections and inflammation, the result of the physiological response to aggression that comes to us from outside, contributes to the body’s defence.

Inflammaging is a state of low grade but chronic inflammation that causes damage to our organic tissues.

In general terms, this system works very well when we are young, but as we get older, it gets over-stimulated. The result is that the inflammatory state can increase significantly resulting in what in medicine is called “chronic low-grade inflammation” or inflammaging, which is a state of low grade but constant inflammation (associated with an increase in some proteins, the inflammatory cytokines) that causes damage to organic tissues.

Low-grade chronic inflammation plays an important role in the onset of diseases associated with ageing and in the fragility of older people.

It is well known, in fact, that inflammaging plays an important role in the onset of diseases associated with ageing and in the fragility of older people. At the same time, inflammation mechanisms are also less effective. This is another problem.

But centenarians don’t
There is, however, one exception to the rule: centenarians, who in fact, in most cases, seem to be “immune” to age-related diseases. They have long been at the centre of numerous research projects, including that of the immunologist Claudio Franceschi of the University of Bologna.

Genetic variations have been identified that reduce the inflammation sensitivity and are more prevalent in centenarians.

Epigenetic ageing

The key questions are: is this a DNA issue? What is the role of the environment? Are they also subject to chronic low-grade inflammation or not?

Obviously, DNA’s involved, all right. Genetic variants have been identified (genes that differ only by one “letter”) that reduce the propensity to inflammation. Well, these variants are present to a greater extent in centenarians than those suffering from age-related diseases.

Pro-inflammatory factors are compensated for by an effective anti-inflammatory response in centenarian people. It is this balanced relationship that makes it possible to reach old age in good health.

In centenarians the pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory factors are in balance

But let’s not forget the environment

In their case, in fact, the pro-inflammatory factors are compensated by an effective anti-inflammatory response, favoured by a strong genetic component. It is this balanced ratio that makes it possible to reach old age in good health.

Research on centenarians is revealing more. For example, that the relationship between genetics and the environment is not only very complex, but also differs considerably from one population to another.

Action on anti-inflammatory processes seems to be a key strategy to prevent and treat age-related diseases.

All these studies have provided solid scientific grounds to look beyond genetics. Intervening on anti-inflammatory processes seems in fact an important strategy to prevent and treat age-related diseases. There are already, for example, substantial data on the possibility of reducing the risk of certain cancers by lowering inflammation.

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