Inflammation is a vital part of your immune response. Whether you are facing an infection or a grazed knee, inflammation is designed to minimize damage.
However, if inflammation continues even when there is no threat to health, it can begin to damage your body.
So, your body has to balance inflammation carefully — if there’s too little, you may be more susceptible to infection, but if there’s too much, it can cause health problems.
As we age, our immune system changes, which is called immunosenescence. As part of this shift, your body finds it increasingly difficult to balance your inflammatory response.
This, in turn, increases the risk of long-term or chronic low-level inflammation in the absence of infection or injury.
Chronic inflammation increases the risk of many conditions associated with old age, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Age-associated inflammaging has also been linked to increased risk of cognitive decline and loss of muscle mass and strength in older adults.
In this article, we'll focus on things you can do now that might reduce your risk of inflammaging or slow its progress.
What is inflammaging?
ZOE spoke with Dr. Tamas Fulop, Ph.D., a professor of medicine and geriatrics, and senior researcher at the Research Center on Aging at the University of Sherbrooke, Canada.
He explained that inflammation is “absolutely necessary as an adaptive mechanism for survival.” However, “when it goes out of control this may become harmful.”
Research into inflammaging is still relatively new, so much of the current research looks at either preventing or slowing immunosenescence in general.
But because the immune system is one of the drivers of inflammation, immunosenescence and inflammaging are tightly connected; you can consider them two sides of the same coin.
The term “inflammaging” was first coined in a paper published in the year 2000. At that time, the authors believed that inflammaging was “inescapable.” Today, scientists are working on ways to reduce the impact of chronic inflammation with age.
Although there are no hard and fast answers, we do have some clues.
1. The power of exercise
Scientists have shown that exercise boosts your immune system. As a result, it reduces the risk of infection, and if you do develop an infection, those who are more physically active are likely to be better equipped to fight it off.
Some scientists believe that regularly exercising throughout your life might help prevent immunosenescence or delay its onset.
For instance, one study recruited older adults who had been active for most of their adult lives. Compared with less active older adults, the active individuals showed fewer signs of an aging immune system and reduced levels of inflammaging.
But even if you haven’t led an active life up until now, physical activity might still reduce levels of inflammaging. Some research has shown that even short periods of exercise can have a positive effect on your immune system.
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In one study on people aged 65–80 years, half exercised three times each week for 12 weeks, and the other half continued their life as usual. The researchers showed that the physically active group had reduced levels of inflammatory markers in their blood.
Similarly, the authors of a review explain that in one of their studies, “10–12 weeks of moderate exercise lowered inflammatory biomarkers [in] previously sedentary, elderly subjects to similar levels as young subjects.”
As we grow older, our gut microbiome changes, too. And scientists now recognize that exercise can help keep your gut microbes happy.
Because the microbiome plays a part in the immune system and inflammation, this might be another route by which exercise helps reduce inflammaging.
ZOE’s scientists have identified 15 “good” gut bacteria associated with positive health outcomes and 15 “bad” gut bacteria linked to poor health outcomes.
If you’re interested in the microbes that live in your gut, learn more about our at-home test today.
And speaking of gut health, let’s move on to diet.
2. Harnessing nutrition
At all stages of life, the food you choose to eat is important for maintaining good health, including the health of your immune system. For instance, some scientists have identified links between the Mediterranean diet and reduced levels of inflammation.
The Mediterranean diet is low in saturated fats and high in good fats, such as extra virgin olive oil. It also includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other good sources of fiber.
One study, involving 125 healthy older adults investigated whether a personalized Mediterranean-style diet for 8 weeks affected levels of inflammation. The scientists also tested some supplements alongside.
The authors found that, even without the supplements, individuals on the Mediterranean-type diet had decreased markers of inflammation, potentially because of an abundance of beneficial bacteria.
Similarly, a year-long study on 120 participants aged 65–79 found that the Mediterranean diet had beneficial effects on the immune system.
What are polyphenols?
The Mediterranean diet’s anti-inflammatory effects might be partly explained by polyphenols.
These compounds are abundant in plants, and multiple studies have found strong links between polyphenols and reduced inflammation.
It’s important to note that everyone responds differently to food. ZOE scientists have shown that eating foods that don’t match your biology can cause dietary inflammation. And if you continue eating these foods for months and years, it might lead to chronic inflammation.
For instance, ZOE’s research has shown that some people experience elevated blood fat levels for prolonged periods after eating, whereas others experience large blood sugar spikes.
Understanding how your body responds to food can help you reduce the risk of long-term inflammation.
With ZOE’s at-home test, you can measure your blood glucose and blood fat responses to food. From this information, we can tell you which foods to eat to suit your biology, helping you keep food-related inflammation in check. Take our free quiz today to find out more.
A role for supplements?
As we already mentioned, gut bacteria play a part in inflammaging. Some evidence suggests that certain probiotics — food or supplements containing live bacteria — might help reduce inflammaging.
One small study involving 61 older adults, for instance, found that taking a Lactobacillus probiotic for 6 months reduced levels of a marker of inflammation.
However, a recent review of nine studies investigating probiotics and inflammation in older adults concluded that probiotic supplements only had a “limited effect on inflammatory markers in healthy individuals older than 65 years.”
There is some evidence that omega-3 supplements might help reduce inflammaging. One study in menopausal women, for instance, found that a 5-week course of fish oil supplements reduced markers of inflammation.
According to the authors of a review, some studies have shown an anti-inflammatory effect from omega-3 supplements, but others have not. This is likely for many reasons. For instance, if a study includes people who are not deficient in omega-3s, they may not benefit.
At ZOE, we know that it’s most important to concentrate on a varied diet that includes a wide range of fresh foods, including foods that contain omega-3 oils.
However, some people, such as those following a vegan or vegetarian diet, may find this challenging and choose to use omega-3 supplements as a helping hand.
3. Maintaining a moderate weight
Maintaining a moderate weight is important for good health. Obesity is associated with several health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and some cancers.
Although scientists are still working out the details, there appear to be two sides to the inflammation–weight gain relationship: Fat cells produce compounds that increase inflammation, so if there are more fat cells, there will be more inflammation. But, at the same time, inflammation itself seems to promote weight gain.
At ZOE, we know that reaching and maintaining a healthy weight can be challenging, and there are lots of factors involved.
Our PREDICT study — the largest nutrition science study of its kind — found that increased amounts of belly fat are associated with certain “bad” gut bugs.
Earlier research has also shown that people with overweight or obesity have a different gut microbiome than people with a moderate weight.
ZOE’s scientists are at the forefront of gut microbiome research. We can analyze your gut microbiome and provide details about the “good” and “bad” bacteria that live inside you.
We’ll also help you understand how your blood sugar and blood fat levels respond to food. From this data, we can tell you what foods are best for your body and your gut bugs.
Unpublished data from ZOE shows that people who closely followed our personalized nutrition program lost an average of 9.4 pounds in 3 months. Take our free quiz today to find out more.
A three-pronged approach
Scientists still have many unanswered questions about inflammaging, but the picture is slowly growing clearer.
There is no magic bullet to stop inflammaging in its tracks. However, a three-pronged approach of exercising more, eating a healthy diet that suits your body, and maintaining a moderate weight will benefit your general health. And this is likely to help reduce inflammaging, too.
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