Strategies to Prevent Unhealthy Inflammation From Harvard Medical School

Senior citizens are particularly at risk for inflammation, which can devastate their health and well-being. Inflammation is a natural body response to injury or infection and can range from mild discomfort to severe pain. While inflammation may help protect the body against further damage in some cases, it can also become chronic and cause several serious medical problems when left unchecked. Senior citizens are more likely to experience prolonged inflammation due to poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and certain medical conditions that can come with aging.

In this article, we present to you a set of strategies identified by Harvard Medical School that can be beneficial when it comes to preventing unhealthy inflammation for seniors. We also provide you with some other basic information about unhealthy inflammation, including the more long-term negative consequences of this condition.

Potential Negative Consequences of Unhealthy Inflammation for Seniors

Researchers at Harvard Medical School have identified several consequences that can arise from unhealthy inflammation. These include:

  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Cognitive decline
  • Joint pain
  • Respiratory problems
  • Digestive issues
  • Weakened immune system

We discuss each of these potential long-term issues that can arise from unhealthy information in turn.

  1. Increased Risk of Heart Disease: Chronic inflammation increases the risk of coronary artery disease, which is responsible for up to 70% of all deaths among senior citizens worldwide. High inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein (CRP) have been linked to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke in older adults.
  2. Cognitive Decline: Research has shown that chronic inflammation may contribute to cognitive decline by damaging brain cells and impairing neuron communication between different brain parts. Elderly individuals who experience low-grade systemic inflammation often have difficulty thinking clearly and retaining information.
  3. Joint Pain: Prolonged levels of inflammation can cause joint pain and stiffness in older people due to erosion of cartilage tissue around joints caused by chronic irritation from an overactive immune system response. This can lead to mobility issues, such as difficulty walking or climbing stairs while making everyday activities more challenging due to discomfort or pain in affected areas.
  4. Respiratory Problems: The lungs can be damaged by chronic inflammatory processes, leading to difficulties in breathing, such as shortness of breath or asthma symptoms like wheezing or coughing. In some cases, elderly individuals may also experience chest tightness due to swelling around the airways caused by increased inflammatory activity around them.
  5. Digestive Issues: Chronic inflammation is linked with digestive problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, heartburn, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, and bloating, among others in seniors due to disruption of normal functioning within the gastrointestinal tract caused by an immune system response gone awry.
  6. Weakened Immune System: An acute inflammatory response is necessary for the body’s natural defense mechanisms against infection and injury. With that duly noted, too much inflammatory activity over time weakens this same immune system leaving elderly individuals vulnerable to pathogens that would otherwise be fought off easily with a healthy immune system response. Prolonged exposure to high levels of inflammatory chemicals causes external and internal damage, making seniors susceptible to developing infections, including colds, flu viruses, and pneumonia.

Harvard Medical School: Specific Strategies to Prevent Unhealthy Inflammation

Several strategies identified by Harvard Medical School are effective at preventing unhealthy inflammation among seniors. These include:

  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Manage stress
  • Do not smoke

Eat a healthy diet. Individual foods have a small impact on body-wide inflammation, so eating more kale isn’t likely to help much. But making sure you eat lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and legumes – sometimes called an anti-inflammatory diet – may reduce inflammation and lower the risk for chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. These diets can help reduce inflammation on their own and replacing foods that increase inflammation (such as sugary drinks and highly processed foods) also benefits your body.

Exercise regularly. Physical activity may help counter inflammation by regulating the immune system. For example, exercise has anti-inflammatory effects on white blood cells, and chemical messengers called cytokines.

Maintain a healthy weight. Because excess fat in cells stimulates body-wide inflammation, avoiding excess weight is an important way to prevent fat-related inflammation. Keeping your weight in check also reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, which causes chronic inflammation.

Manage stress. Repeatedly triggered stress hormones contribute to chronic inflammation. Yoga, deep breathing, mindfulness practices, and other forms of relaxation can help calm your nervous system.

Do not smoke. Toxins inhaled in cigarette smoke trigger inflammation in the airways, damage lung tissue, and increase the risk of lung cancer and other health problems.

Symptoms of Unhealthy Inflammation in Seniors

There are several symptoms of unhealthy inflammation that seniors, their caregivers, and other loved ones need to be aware of and monitor. Six of the most commonplace symptoms of unhealthy inflammation among people over the age of 65 are:

  1. Joint pain and stiffness: Inflammation of the joints is also known as arthritis. It’s characterized by swollen joints, redness, heat, swelling, and pain in the affected area. When left untreated for a long period, arthritis can lead to joint deformity and disability.
  2. Muscle aches: Muscles are very sensitive to inflammation and can become sore or tender when exposed to them for too long. Inflammation may also cause muscle weakness due to decreased blood flow or nerve irritation, causing pain or cramping in the affected area.
  3. Fatigue: Chronic inflammation leads to increased levels of cytokines in the body, which are responsible for controlling metabolism and energy production. When these cytokines become overactive, they can cause fatigue, affecting overall energy levels and performance at work or during physical activities like exercise or sports.
  4. Skin rashes: These occur due to an abnormal immune response triggered by inflammation which causes itching, redness, swelling, and blisters on the skin surface along with burning sensations. These skin rashes are often accompanied by increased sensitivity to light and itching or burning sensations in contact with certain fabrics, such as wool or nylon, due to their fabric’s chemical makeup triggering an allergic reaction linked with inflammation in some individuals.
  5. Digestive issues: Unhealthy inflammation can lead to gastrointestinal problems, such as bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and nausea due to decreased appetite caused by systemic changes resulting from the body’s attempt at maintaining homeostasis while dealing with inflammation. This decrease in appetite may also be accompanied by abdominal pain related directly to digestive tract irritation caused by abnormal immunoactivity and indirectly due to stress-induced changes, such as heightened cortisol levels, causing reduced stomach acid production and leading to further complications related to digestion.
  6. Cognitive difficulties: Neuroinflammation caused due to unhealthy levels of systemic inflammation has been linked with memory loss problems, confusion, difficulty concentrating, depression, anxiety, mood swings, and dementia. Studies suggest that chronic low-grade systemic inflammation is associated with brain shrinkage leading to an increased risk of cognitive decline later in life.

In the final analysis, older women and men can enjoy improved health and wellness by taking steps to lower the risk of unhealthy inflammation among seniors. Indeed, research indicates that taking steps to lower the risk of inflammation can also add time to a senior’s life.