Active 80-year olds with 20 year-old immune systems

12/05/2018

"If excercise was a pill, everyone would be taking it." This quote comes from Prof Norman Lazarus, 82, of King's College London and I think he makes an interesting point. The benefits of excercise, whatever your age, are well documented and most of us know that we should incorporate some form of excercise into our lives and routines, so if there was a 'quick fix' pill people would probably be queuing up to take it.
Prof Lazarus's observation comes following his research which establishes that excercise in old age prevents the immune system from declining and can protect against infections. The research followed 125 long-distance cyclists, some now in their 80's, and found they had the immune systems of 20-year olds.
Prof Janet Lord, Director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing, and the co-author of the research explained. "The immune system declines by about 2-3% a year, which is why older people are more susceptible to infections, conditions like reheumatoid arthritis and, potentially cancer. Because the cyclists have the immune system of a 20-year old rather than a 70 or 80-year old, it means they have added protection against all these issues."
Here's the science bit - the researchers looked at markers in the blood for T-cells, which help the immune system respond to new infections.
These are produced in the thymus, a gland in the chest which normally shrinks in size in adulthood. They found that the endurance cyclists were producing the same level of T-cells as adults in their 20s, whereas a group of inactive older adults were producing very few.
But there' good news for the non-athletes, we don't necessarily have to get out the lycra and cycle for miles to reap the benefits "anything which gets you moving and a little bit our of puff wll help." According to Steve Harridge, co-author and professor of physiology at King's College London.
As with most health-related matters, the infomation is out there and we generally know what to do to ensure we keep ourselves in the best shape possible. But I think this piece of research gives us a new level of understandng, the researchers really believe that being physically active in old age can pevent the immune system from declining and there be better equipped to fight infections. So, in the absence of a wonder pill perhaps we should reach for the lycra!