Ageing, Telomeres, & Chronic Inflammation

Chronic Inflammation

We often hear discussions about inflammation but what exactly is chronic inflammation and why does ageing cause it?

We’ve all seen ‘acute inflammation’. Usually, we recognize it as a swelling that is red and warm to touch. Often this will follow an injury of some sort – perhaps a cut, a burn, or a twisted ankle? Our body reacts to the injury by sending in several different types of defender cells, some of which release a range of chemicals. This promotes cell division so that new cells can heal the broken or damaged tissue.

Acute inflammation usually heals our external wounds. However, when serious, ongoing, chronic inflammation occurs inside our internal organs, it can lead to our death.

Chronic inflammation involves the same cells and same processes as acute inflammation, but since it occurs within our internal organs, it is hidden from view. We usually don’t know that this chronic inflammation is present until it has caused some serious, perhaps life-threatening illness.

But chronic inflammation isn’t usually caused by injury. Rather, it is caused by the cell division of the ageing cells in our internal organs. Cell division occurs throughout our livespan because all tissues have to be continuously renewed in order to function. However, because each cell can only divide a limited number of times. When it reaches its ‘telomere limit’ (see below), it will create inflammation unless you take ‘dietary action’. Unfortunately, normal cell division itself causes chronic inflammation as a side effect of replacing old cells.

Inflammation defined

Cartoon showing cell interactions in Inflammation

The Medline ‘MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia’ defines inflammation as the response that occurs when tissues are injured by bacteria, trauma, toxins, heat, or ‘any other cause’. The damaged cells release chemicals including histamine, bradykinin, and prostaglandins. These chemicals cause blood vessels to leak fluid into the tissues which in turn causes swelling.

When chronic, ‘low grade’ inflammation occurs within our bodies it can have dangerous long-term effects. Apart from possibly damaging internal organs, the stimulation of cell division can both reduce lifespan and increase the risks of cancer. Some scientific publications are now referring to this process as ‘inflammageing’ and authors are starting to write about our ‘Inflammation Clock’ (see image below) rather than our Biological Clock!

Many scientific publications now suggest that inflammation of the endothelium is the most important problem. The endothelium is the name given to the single layer of cells that lines our various organs and cavities of the body. The term is mostly used to refer to the cells that line our veins and arteries, our hearts and our lymphatic vessels.

Ageing and Inflammation

Ageing per se is arguably the most important cause of this low-grade chronic inflammation that is ultimately the controller of lifespan. People who live longer, especially centenarians, have lower levels of chronic inflammation than average! There are probably several reasons for this but dietary factors can help us.

You will find a full explanation of how and why ageing cells become inflammatory in my book ‘Why We Age’, which you can access from this website or as a book or Kindle from my Amazon page.

There are also detailed and easy descriptions of this process in each of the two courses that are available on this website.  

Put simply, each of our cells has a limited capacity to divide. This is determined by the length of telomeres (the ends of chromosomes). A small piece of a telomere is chopped off each end of each chromosome every time a cell divides. When telomeres become too short, the cell can no longer divide. The two options are then either self-destruction (cells undergo ‘apoptosis’) or senescence.

Unfortunately, the state of senescence causes inflammation in all the tissues in which it occurs. Moreover, since the inflammatory process stimulates more cells to divide, inflammation itself ultimately leads to more inflammation.

For this reason, ageing is always associated with chronic inflammation! However, the way our bodies deal with this chronic inflammation is determined firstly by our own specific genes and secondly by our lifestyle.

We can’t do anything about our genes but there is a lot we can do about our lifestyles. In the next few weeks, I will write more about reducing inflammation but in the meantime, you can check out my blogs on Olive Oil, Selenium and Dark Chocolate!

In addition, you should make sure that you are avoiding other ageing accelerants.

Major ageing accelerants

Stress, anxiety, and other emotional factors

Experiencing childhood trauma: emotional, physical, or sexual abuse reduces lifespan because these induce inflammation through direct effects on Tryptophan and Phenylalanine metabolites.

Acute stress in adult life can also cause inflammation (and thus shorten life) in a similar way – so do try to avoid acute stress if possible.

Being very overweight and/or having low physical activity shortens telomeres. If this is you, take some action before it is too late!

Exposure to environmental pollutants, including cigarette smoke also shorten telomeres. Try to avoid all exposures if you want to live a longer, healthier life.

Published by Dr Judy

I am a PhD Geneticist and have spent many decades working in research related to reproduction and cancer. Both are affected by lifestyle, especially ageing and so I am passionate about teaching people how to change their lifestyles to optimise their health.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.