The Ins and Outs of Inflammation — and Why It’s So Important to the Aging Process

inflammation and aging

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Here are the symptoms to look out for, plus what to do when they pop up.

When it comes to the never-ending work of taking care of ourselves, we tend to not pay attention to the little aches and pains as much as the bigger, more holistic concerns. But what if those small aches and tiny pains were direct indicators of a major medical issue? And what if paying attention to them was the key to a long, healthy life?

As it turns out, this is exactly the case. Chronic inflammation is one of the major health concerns for older adults as they approach their twilight years. In fact, the issue is so common among seniors — and so damaging — that experts have coined a term for it: inflammaging. 

Katie Couric Media spoke with some of the top longevity experts in the world to learn how chronic inflammation works, why inflammaging is such a detrimental process, and what you can do to keep it under control in the years to come. 

What is “inflammaging” and how does inflammation impact aging?

Inflammation is, at the most basic level, an attempt from your body to defend itself from a perceived attack. When your immune system senses the presence of bacteria or damaged muscle tissue, for example, it sends out white blood cells to the afflicted area.

“In such cases, the inflammation is actually useful because white blood cells flow in to fight infection and help a person heal — at which time, ideally, the body system stops sending white blood cells, and the inflammation goes away,” explains Dilip Jeste, M.D., an American geriatric neuropsychiatrist who studies the process of successful aging.

This response from your immune system can be triggered by much more than a tennis injury or a bout of the flu. Inflammation also occurs in response to environmental or biological challenges, like chronic stress, obesity, and autoimmune disorders. “In these cases,” Dr. Jeste says, “the inflammation becomes chronic.” 

Your mental health also plays a role, particularly when you’re carrying an emotional burden day in and day out. “Studies have shown that chronic stress, like caregiving or depression, can create chronic inflammation,” notes Elissa Epel, Ph.D., an American health psychologist and director of the University of California, San Francisco’s Aging, Metabolism, and Emotion Center.

It probably won’t surprise you to hear this about something that’s described as “chronic,” but a perpetually inflamed immune system usually isn’t good news for your health overall. “A chronic state of inflammation increases the risk of aging-related conditions like heart disease, arthritis, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and even some cancers,” Dr. Jeste says. 

Consider it this way: If your body is in a state of chronic inflammation, it means your immune system is working 24/7, like an engine on overdrive. When that takes place for years on end,  your body will likely age more rapidly than if you weren’t in a heightened state of stress. 

Symptoms of chronic inflammation

Nowadays, chronic stress feels like the default setting for so many people in our society. So how can you tell if your stress is causing an inflammaging situation in your body, or if your stress is just making you feel, well, stressed?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, here are the symptoms you should watch out for, which can serve as a signal that your stress is leading to an exhausted immune system. 

Common symptoms of chronic inflammation

  • Stomach pain
  • Chest pain
  • Constant fatigue
  • Frequent fevers
  • Joint pain/stiffness
  • Mouth sores

The good news is that chronic inflammation has real tells, in the form of an excess of white blood cells in certain areas of your body. As a result, your doctor can run a number of tests to determine whether or not these symptoms are a sign of chronic inflammation, or of something else entirely. 

Per Harvard Health, one of the tricky parts of diagnosing (and then working to resolve) chronic inflammation is this: Because it can take place in the body for so long, it can be hard to know what initially caused the inflammation — and, therefore, how to prevent it in the future. Additionally, since chronic inflammation is connected to so many ailments and diseases, it can be challenging to figure out whether it’s a byproduct of the medical issue, or whether it’s causing the medical issue to begin with. 

Interestingly, inflammaging is considered to be one of the seven pillars of aging, which are a set of interconnected processes that occur within the body and tend to accelerate the aging process. All of these processes fit into that chicken-or-egg scenario, where it’s difficult to know if they’re the cause or the result of any given medical issue.

Regardless, since they are connected to so many medical grievances, most scientists agree that the more you can monitor, slow, or otherwise minimize the effect of these processes, the better off you’ll be as you age. 

Seven pillars of aging:

How to deal with chronic inflammation

Dr. Jeste points to two common anti-inflammatory agents that also reduce pain: ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn). However it’s important to be careful about how often you use these pills since they can lead to major gastrointestinal side effects if taken frequently. 

“Other strategies to combat chronic inflammation include avoiding red meat, white bread, muffins, fried foods, and sugary drinks,” he says. “Instead, try to eat green leafy vegetables, fruits, nuts, fatty fish, and olive oil.”

“The biggest swap you want to make is to replace highly processed food with whole foods,” Epel adds, echoing Dr. Jeste’s suggestion. “Focus on the rainbow – whole fruits and vegetables. That gives you the range of healthy antioxidants you need for optimal well-being.”

Another major antidote for chronic inflammation is exercise. “Stay physically active, if you can,” Dr. Jeste encourages. If you suffer from joint pain and muscular aches (a common symptom of inflammation), try some low-impact workouts to avoid further inflaming your sore knees and aching wrists. 

Of course, another major remedy would be to do anything that lowers your stress level. Easier said than done, we know! But it might be the push you need to pick one unhealthy habit and try to kick it. For example, maybe you ditch the doom-scrolling at night in exchange for diving into an immersive novel

It’s worth noting that you’re not necessarily doing anything “wrong,” lifestyle-wise if you do suffer from chronic inflammation. In general, your risk of this condition increases as you get older, and at the end of the day, no human on earth has found a way to keep themselves from aging altogether (at least, not yet).

Additionally, you might have another chronic issue or illness beyond stress that causes this ongoing inflammation, and if that’s the case, your problem probably can’t be immediately resolved with changes to your daily routine. This is a roundabout way of reminding you that everyone’s knees get a little bit achy as time goes on, and no two sets of swollen wrists are the same — but now that you have a better understanding of what’s actually going on to cause that pain, plus how it impacts your health over time, then you’ll have the chance to address the soreness any way you see fit.

Want more wisdom about living your longest life? Catch up on our full longevity series right here, featuring advice on nutrition, fitness, mental health, and more — and subscribe to Wake-Up Call to stay in the loop as our reporting continues.