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The world’s population is a lot older than it used to be. But living longer comes with a host of issues that researchers know make it imperative to better understand disparities in age-related health, particularly as they affect the immune system.
As we grow older, the immune system naturally begins to undergo a process known as immunosenescence. This happens when your immune profile grows weaker because too many worn-out white blood cells are in circulation, and there are too few fresh, “naïve” white blood cells ready to take their place and attack new invaders.
This immunosenescence is associated with reduced vaccine efficacy in elderly people, as well as increased risk of pneumonia, cardiovascular disease and aging of the organs.
Even knowing all this, researchers still aren’t clear on what could account for drastic health differences between same-age adults. So, a team at the University of Southern California (USC) decided to explore whether there’s a connection between declining immune system strength and lifetime exposure to stress, a known contributor to poor health….
Immune system aging can be sped up by stress
The USC researchers took a close look at a sample of 5,744 adults over the age of 50 from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HERS). This national longitudinal study examines the economic, health, marital and family status and public and private support systems of older Americans.
The researchers measured exposure of these adults to various types of social stress by analyzing their answers to a questionnaire designed to assess their experiences with things like stressful life events, chronic stress, everyday discrimination and lifetime discrimination. Then, they analyzed blood samples from these participants.
As anticipated, those with higher stress scores in the questionnaires had older-seeming immune system profiles, with lower percentages of fresh disease-fighting white blood cells and higher percentages of exhausted white blood cells. This association remained strong even after controlling for education, smoking, drinking, body mass index (BMI) and race or ethnicity.
These results show that everyday stressors, traumatic events, job strain and discrimination all can prematurely weaken your body’s mix of immune cells, raising your risk of disease.
How to offset stress-related immune aging
It can be tough to control all sources of stress. But the USC researchers believe there may be a helpful workaround if you take better care of the source of a critical component of your immune system…
T-cells mature in the thymus, a gland that sits just in front of and above the heart. When you get older, the tissue in your thymus shrinks and is replaced by fatty tissue, which reduces the production of these immune cells. Past studies have suggested this process is accelerated by lifestyle factors like poor diet and lack of exercise.
Interestingly, both these factors are also connected with social stress. That means Improving diet and exercise behaviors in older adults may help offset stress-related immune aging.
“In this study, after statistically controlling for poor diet and low exercise, the connection between stress and accelerated immune aging wasn’t as strong,” says lead study author Eric Klopack, a postdoctoral scholar in the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. “What this means is people who experience more stress tend to have poorer diet and exercise habits, partly explaining why they have more accelerated immune aging.”
Some good benchmarks to aim for are eating mostly whole, unprocessed foods and getting at least 30 minutes of exercise three times a week.
In addition, studies have demonstrated a few specific ways to help your thymus thrive:
- Ramping up antioxidant intake. A 2015 study found that antioxidants — especially vitamin C — can protect your thymus from free radicals and prevent age-related thymus shrinkage.
- Going grain-free. A 1993 study shows that a chemical in wheat called wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) contributes to a shrinking thymus.
- Getting enough zinc. Scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center discovered that a zinc burst is a key regenerative factor that seemed to kick off the thymus’ renewal processes.
- Staying away from artificial sweeteners. Studies show that artificial sweeteners like sucralose shrink the thymus gland in rats.
The USC researchers also noted another target for intervention could be cytomegalovirus (CMV), a common asymptomatic virus in humans that’s known to accelerate immune aging. Like the viruses that cause shingles or cold sores, CMV is usually dormant, but high stress can cause it to flare up. When the researchers controlled the data for CMV positivity, they found a reduced connection between stress and faster immune aging.
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