senior nutrition
August 27, 2014

Dietary Changes Can Slow Decline Of The Immune System In Old Age, Says Study

John Hopton for - Your Universe Online

Two studies by researchers at University College London (UCL) have investigated the reasons why our immune systems decline with age, and have found ways to address the problem.

It is a reluctantly-accepted reality of aging that an increasingly impaired immune system will result in more infections, a greater risk of cancer, and a reduced response to vaccination. But Professor Arne Akbar from UCL explains that some aspects of aging in the immune system are “reversible.” By observing “hard and fast rules” for the long-suspected interplay between nutrition, metabolism and immunity, Akbar’s team has established that dietary changes could have a positive impact on immunity in the elderly, which in turn could make existing therapies more effective.

[ Watch the Video: Research To Improve The Immune System Of Older People ]

The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), who had previously funded work by the same team at UCL who had shown aging in immune system cells, known as 'T lymphocytes’ or ‘T cells,’ could be controlled by a molecule called 'p38 MAPK.' The molecule was found to behave as a brake to prevent certain cellular functions. This suggested the possibility of using drug treatment, in the form of a p38 MAPK inhibitor, to rejuvenate old T cells. Now, one of the two new studies, published in Nature Immunology, shows that along with signals associated with age, p38 MAPK is activated by low nutrient levels within cells. The pathway is regulated by metabolism, and so is influenced by nutritional intake. Dietary changes could therefore be as effective as intervention with drugs.

As well as showing how function of old T cells could be rebuilt by blocking p38 MAPK, the study provides a prototype mechanism for how aging and nutrient signals converge to regulate the function of T cells.

Dr. Sian Henson, who led the second paper, published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, explains that when the immune system is at work, T cells divide - but do so less efficiently with age. Blocking the p38 MAPK molecule and boosting the fitness of cells weakened by aging will enhance their ability to divide, by improving the performance of mitochondria - the cellular batteries that provide the cells with energy and drive function.

We now live twice as long as we did 150 years ago. However as Professor Akbar explains, the senior years that many people now experience represent an unhealthy old age that creates a burden on healthcare. Boosting immunity would make older people healthier and less dependent on regular medical treatment for a range of ailments, a great number of them related to immune system function. Where treatments are needed, improved immunity would ensure a better response to it.

Akbar tells us that since “changing diet and other lifestyle changes can boost immunity,” we may not live longer, but our old age will be healthier.

Scientists from Complejo Hospitalario de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain were also involved in the study, together with contributors from Cancer Research UK, University of Oxford and University of Tor Vergata, Rome, Italy.