The shocking reason pneumonia is so deadly for seniors

What we used to call cold and flu season is just around the corner. We now know that COVID is likely to be a part of it from here on out…

And we can rest assured that, as always, pneumonia is in the cards for a lot of folks — especially seniors — regardless of which virus hits them.

Pneumonia is a dangerous condition for older adults. They are nearly five times more likely to be hospitalized after contracting pneumonia, and death rates from the illness can exceed 50 percent depending on underlying health conditions.

Some new research at the University of Colorado School of Medicine has provided some surprising insight as to why that is…

And it has as much to do with the gut as it does with the lungs…

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From a leaky gut to inflamed lungs

Researchers looked at the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniaein in animal models, studying changes in intestinal microbial populations after infection. 

“Streptococcus pneumoniae is normally carried in the nasal passages of healthy adults. People with healthy immune systems can just live with it, and it doesn’t cause any problems,” CU School of Medicine immunology graduate student Holly Hulsebus explains.

“But people with compromised immune systems, including older adults, tend to become more susceptible because their immune system can’t really control the bacteria that are normally there. Those bacteria can leave the nose and move to other places in the body. They can cause ear infections, and they also can spread to the lungs and cause pneumonia.”  

When Streptococcus pneumoniae infected older mice, they demonstrated increased illness and impaired lung function, as well as elevated levels of gut-derived bacteria in the lungs. The latter suggests that bacteria migrating from the intestines to the lungs could be partially responsible for the poor outcomes of Streptococcus pneumoniae lung infections in older people.

But how do bacteria leave the gut to travel and infect other parts of the body? A leaky guta condition that acts as an open door to disease, especially for seniors.

“Our working theory is that as you age, you have a heightened baseline inflammatory response, which then induces the gut to be more pro-inflammatory,” says Dr. Rachel McMahan of the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “That causes potentially pathogenic bacteria in the gut to leak out into the organs, and then things can go downhill fast.”

When COVID-19 was at its height, a leaky gut similarly created a vulnerability to infection from SARS-CoV-2.

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Protecting your gut microbiome as you age

It’s been tough to get the medical community to acknowledge leaky gut as a real issue.

While awareness has climbed in recent years, most doctors still don’t really understand it. But the truth is, leaky gut affects as many as a third of all adults in the U.S., and as this research demonstrates, can have potentially catastrophic results for your health — particularly if you’re older.

But by focusing on the gut, the researchers may be able to find new ways to fight increased inflammation in the lungs. They plan to investigate the effectiveness of microbiome or fecal transplants that replace the bacteria in the aging gut with that of younger animals.

Until then, they specifically cite probiotics and a healthy diet as strategies for keeping gut bacteria in place in older individuals.

In past issues, we’ve recommended ditching refined sugar, dairy products, processed meats and gluten-containing grains like wheat and barley. All of these have been identified as triggers for leaky gut.

Instead, try eating a clean, organic whole-food diet with plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, fruits and vegetables, protein and gluten-free grains like brown rice, quinoa, millet and buckwheat.

If you want to really improve the integrity of your intestinal lining, get plenty of polyphenols. Studies show that including up to three daily portions of polyphenol-rich foods like apples, cocoa, dark chocolate, green tea, cranberries, oranges or pomegranate juice made specific changes to the gut microbiome that improved intestinal permeability.

Make sure when you source these foods that they’re organic so that they’re free of dangerous pesticides that are capable of harming gut integrity.

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How a Leaky Gut Leads to Inflamed Lungs — University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus

Age-Related Intestinal Dysbiosis and Enrichment of Gut-specific Bacteria in the Lung Are Associated With Increased Susceptibility to Streptococcus pneumoniae Infection in Mice — Frontiers in Aging

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.