According to a recent study, people suffering from chronic inflammation in middle age may be at a higher risk of suffering from frailty in their later years. The study involved nearly 6,000 Americans who were followed for 24 years. The findings of the study were published in the March 2018 issue of The Journal of Gerontology.
Now, I’m not going to share the entire study with you today, but I do want to give you a brief summary, in case late-life frailty is a concern of yours. If you’ve got further questions regarding staying healthy as you age, please consult with your doctor.
Inside the Study
Researchers tracked study participants from the time they were in their 40s and 50s until they were in their 60s and 70s. Each participant was given five medical examinations over the years. The exams measured specific inflammatory “biomarkers,” including their white blood cell count, and the levels of fibrinogen (a protein found in blood plasma) in their blood.
After measuring the participants’ individual level of inflammation based on their biomarker levels, researchers placed them in one of three categories: “robust,” “pre-frail,” or “frail.” Frailty is, in a nutshell, a sign of aging that results in a person’s inability to function properly. Examples of frailty include unintentional weight loss, a loss of grip strength, an increased risk of falls, and a reduction in energy.
According to the results, people who suffered from chronic inflammation during middle age were nearly 40 percent more likely to be frail decades later. Only 4 to 5 percent of participants who had lower levels of inflammation were considered frail in their older years, compared to 9 percent of those with higher inflammation levels.
The authors of the study were careful to point out that this does not necessarily mean there is a cause-and-effect relationship between inflammation and frailty. However, they say that –
the study provides evidence that an adult’s middle-age period is very important when it comes to avoiding frailty in old age.
“Our results support the idea that disease processes leading to frailty may begin decades prior to its onset, in a similar manner to other chronic conditions such as dementia,” said lead study author Keenan Walker, Ph.D., of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
“Middle adulthood may be an especially important period for poor health in older adults for multiple reasons,” Walker said. “First, it is in middle age when the incidence of common chronic diseases, such as diabetes, begins to accelerate. Second, compared to individuals who develop systemic disease and inflammation in later life, individuals who develop these conditions in midlife may have a longer exposure and therefore are more susceptible to deleterious physiological effects.”
A Promising Future
The researchers cannot say for sure that treating inflammation can lower the chances of becoming frail. However, there are ongoing trials being conducted to see if lactoferrin, a substance found in breast milk, could eventually reduce inflammation later in life. Lactoferrin is believed to stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, or gastrointestinal tract. This, in turn, could help lessen inflammation in older people.
“There are studies underway to see if dropping levels of inflammation, mostly in older age groups, can prevent the progression of declines in mobility and in the muscles that contribute to frailty,” said study co-author Jeremy Walston, also of Johns Hopkins. “Stay tuned – hopefully we’ll be able to say with more accuracy in the not-too-distant future that treating chronic inflammation will reduce your risk of muscle decline and related frailty.