These days we know that aging is as much about inflammation as anything else. Infections and inflammation are never very far apart.
It has become clear that many chronic, under-the-radar infections that linger in the body produce the steady, destructive, decay processes that marks aging. That’s bad news.
For instance, we know now that atherosclerosis (heart disease, strokes) is caused by chronic infections, NOT cholesterol and bad fats. Fatty deposits are the result, not the cause, of arterial damage. The feared “plaques” are Nature’s own doing, designed to wall off inflammatory patches caused by hidden bacterial attacks [this was written up in Scientific American a few years back, can’t remember exactly when].
Oxidation of fats in these plaques are the real problem but fats are not the cause of the problem. Inflammation, and hence oxidation (rancidity), are the real killers.
The two chief suspects for this smoldering inflammation are bacteria called Chlamydia pneumoniae (thought to cause pneumonia) and Porphyromonas gingivalis (a cause of gum disease). Other culprits likely include viruses such as Herpes, CMV and maybe Epstein-Barr.
Despite the medical profession’s obsession with smoking, blood fats and personality factors (such as type A personality), it’s probable that these two pathogens and their malign effects are the main cause of arterial disease.
It would explain why some smokers live beyond 100 and hyper-stressed driver personalities DON’T all keel over with coronary insufficiency!
You’ve heard the cholesterol, smoking and stress story hundreds of times, I’m sure. Today, let’s look at the evidence for the other picture (well, some of it; there’s a LOT).
Consider a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2000. Researchers investigated selected men between 39 and 45 years old and tested their levels of coronary artery calcification, one of the best markers for heart disease and likely fatality. They found NO correlation with stress whatever.
The only thing they unearthed was that hypochondriacs were less likely to have coronary artery calcification. Biologist Paul Ewald suggest this might be because hypochondriacs are more likely to receive antibiotics! That would reduce hidden infections.
It’s plausible. Another study could back this up: in 1999 in The Journal Of The American Medical Association published a study in which greater use of tetracycline was associated with fewer heart attacks.
This bacterial inflammation hypothesis would also neatly explain why second-hand smoke is dangerous: it lays open the body to chemical irritation and subsquent invasion by pathogens, even though present in only very small quantities. As Paul Ewald comments, it may be more a case of second-hand infections!
Of course I’m not saying that diet, lifestyle and smoking etc are not issues. I am saying you can do everything right and still drop dead 20 years before your time, because of these d***ed bugs!
C. pneumoniae may also turn out to be a cause or contributive factor to multiple sclerosis (MS) and Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers at Vanderbilt University found a definite correlation between MS and C. pneumoniae. The whole topic is hotly debated because many laboratories cannot replicate the association in tests of their own.
But it turns out that this is because laboratories are not doing it right. A blinded experiment run by Multiple Sclerosis Institute of the Carolinas Medical center, in which samples of patient’s blood disguised with different names was sent to different laboratories, came back showing that Vanderbilt University had a much more sensitive detection test.
The same argument broke out over the association with Alzheimer’s. Again it was laboratory technique that was lacking. James Mahoney at Massachussetts University failed to confirm the association but he had the sense to call Alan Hudson, one of the senior editors in the original study. Mahoney was told by Hudson that testing each brain sample needed to be repeated several times before correlating the results.
He did and Mahoney then found what Hudson’s team had found.
Which all amounts to the following very intersting conclusion: if you want to be truly healthy and live long, you had better start worrying about having an industrial strength immune system that can at least compress this phenomenon and handicap so-called stealth pathogens.
We’ll talk about how to do that next week!