The ‘immunity’ secret to exceptional longevity

In a new study that came out this month, researchers from Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine and Tufts Medical Center have found that centenarians possess unique immune cell type composition and highly functional immune systems that have successfully adapted to a history of sickness, allowing for exceptional longevity.

There are approximately 30 trillion cells in a human body. Our health is predicated on these 30 trillion cells properly interacting with and supporting each other, with the immune system playing a significant role. As we age, we experience a decline in the proper functioning of our immune system (i.e.) immunosenescence; moreover, “there is inflammaging, a term that’s been used to describe age-related increases in inflammation because of high levels of pro-inflammatory markers in the blood and different tissues in the body. That’s a strong risk factor for all sorts of diseases, including neurodegenerative processes like Alzheimer’s disease, for example,” says Dr. Scott Kaiser, a geriatrician, and director of Geriatric Cognitive Health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California. But Centenarians (individuals who reach 100 years or more) experience delays in aging-related diseases and mortality, which suggests that their immune systems remain functional into extreme old age.

“Our data support the hypothesis that centenarians have protective factors that enable [them] to recover from disease and reach extreme old ages,” said lead author Tanya Karagiannis, PhD, senior bioinformatician, Center for Quantitative Methods and Data Science, Institute for Clinical Research and Health Policy Studies at Tufts Medical Center.

According to the researchers, when people are exposed to infections and recover from them, their immune system learns to adapt, but this ability to respond declines as we age. “The immune profiles that we observed in the centenarians confirms a long history of exposure to infections and capacity to recover from them and provide support to the hypothesis that centenarians are enriched for protective factors that increase their ability to recover from infections,” said senior author Paola Sebastiani, PhD, director, Center for Quantitative Methods and Data Science, Institute for Clinical Research and Health Policy Studies at Tufts Medical Center.

“Centenarians, and their exceptional longevity, provide a ‘blueprint’ for how we might live more productive, healthful lives.  We hope to continue to learn everything we can about resilience against disease and the extension of one’s health span,” said senior author George J. Murphy, PhD, associate professor of medicine at the School of Medicine.

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