The Ageing Immune System and Health (I)

as we age, we observe a greater heterogeneity of ability and health. The variation in, say, walking speed is far greater in a group of 70 year olds, than in a group on 20 year olds. This makes the study of ageing and the factors driving that heterogeneity of health and functional ability in old age vital. […] The study of the immune system across the lifespan has demonstrated that as we age the immune system undergoes a decline in function, termed immunosenescence. […] the decline in function is not universal across all aspects of the immune system, and neither is the magnitude of functional loss similar between individuals. The theory of inflammageing, which represents a chronic low grade inflammatory state in older people, has been described as a major consequence of immunosenescence, though lifestyle factors such as reduced physical activity and increased adiposity also play a major role […] In poor health, older people accumulate disease, described as multimorbidity. This in turn means traditional single system based health care becomes less valid as each system affected by disease impacts on other systems. This leads some older people to be at greater risk of adverse events such as disability and death. The syndrome of this increased vulnerability is described as frailty, and increasing fundamental evidence is emerging that suggests immunosenescence and inflammageing may underpin frailty […] Thus frailty is seen as one clinical manifestation of immunosenescence.”

The above quotes are from the book‘s preface. I gave it 3 stars on goodreads. I should probably, considering that this topic is mentioned in the preface, mention explicitly that the book doesn’t actually go into a lot of details about the downsides of ‘traditional single system based health care’; the book is mainly about immunology and related topics, and although it provides coverage of intervention studies etc., it doesn’t really provide detailed coverage about issues like the optimization of organizational structures/systems analysis etc.. The book I was currently reading while I started out writing this post – Integrated Diabetes Care – A Multidisciplinary Approach (blog coverage here) – is incidentally pretty much exclusively devoted to providing coverage of these sorts of topics (and it did a fine job).

If you have never read any sort of immunology text before the book will probably be unreadable to you – “It is aimed at fundamental scientists and clinicians with an interest in ageing or the immune system.” In my coverage below I have not made any efforts towards picking out quotes which would be particularly easy for the average reader to read and understand; this is another way of saying that the post is mainly written for my own benefit, perhaps even more so than is usually the case, not for the benefit of potential readers reading along here.

“Physiological ageing is associated with significant re-modelling of the immune system. Termed immunosenescence, age-related changes have been described in the composition, phenotype and function of both the innate and adaptive arms of the immune system. […] Neutrophils are the most abundant leukocyte in circulation […] The first step in neutrophil anti-microbial defence is their extravasation from the bloodstream and migration to the site of infection. Whilst age appears to have no effect upon the speed at which neutrophils migrate towards chemotactic signals in vitro [15], the directional accuracy of neutrophil migration to inflammatory agonists […] as well as bacterial peptides […] is significantly reduced [15]. […] neutrophils from older adults clearly exhibit defects in several key defensive mechanisms, namely chemotaxis […], phagocytosis of opsonised pathogens […] and NET formation […]. Given this near global impairment in neutrophil function, alterations to a generic signalling element rather than defects in molecules specific to each anti-microbial defence strategy is likely to explain the aberrations in neutrophil function that occur with age. In support of this idea, ageing in rodents is associated with a significant increase in neutrophil membrane fluidity, which coincides with a marked reduction in neutrophil function […] ageing results in a reduction in NK cell production and proliferation […] Numerous studies have examined the impact of age […], with the general consensus that at the single cell level, NK cell cytotoxicity (NKCC) is reduced with age […] retrospective and prospective studies have reported relationships between low NK cell activity in older adults and (1) a past history of severe infection, (2) an increased risk of future infection, (3) a reduced probability of surviving infectious episodes and (4) infectious morbidity [49–51]. Related to this increased risk of infection, reduced NKCC prior to and following influenza vaccination in older adults has been shown to be associated with reduced protective anti-hemagglutinin titres, worsened health status and an increased incidence of respiratory tract infection […] Whilst age has no effect upon the frequency or absolute number of monocytes [54, 55], the composition of the monocyte pool is markedly different in older adults, who present with an increased frequency of non-classical and intermediate monocytes, and fewer classical monocytes when compared to their younger counterparts”.

“Via their secretion of growth factors, pro-inflammatory cytokines, and proteases, senescent cells compromise tissue homeostasis and function, and their presence has been causally implicated in the development of such age-associated conditions as sarcopenia and cataracts [92]. Several studies have demonstrated a role for innate immune cells in the recognition and clearance of senescent cells […] ageing is associated with a low-grade systemic up-regulation of circulating inflammatory mediators […] Results from longitudinal-based studies suggest inflammageing is deleterious to human health with studies in older cohorts demonstrating that low-grade increases in the circulating levels of TNF-α [103], IL-6 […] and CRP [105] are associated with both all-cause […] and cause-specific […] mortality. Furthermore, inflammageing is a predictor of frailty [106] and is considered a major factor in the development of several age-related pathologies, such as atherosclerosis [107], Alzheimer’s disease [100] and sarcopenia [108].”

“Persistent viral infections, reduced vaccination responses, increased autoimmunity, and a rise in inflammatory syndromes all typify immune ageing. […] These changes can be in part attributed to the accumulation of highly differentiated senescent T cells, characterised by their decreased proliferative capacity and the activation of senescence signaling pathways, together with alterations in the functional competence of regulatory cells, allowing inflammation to go unchecked. […] Immune senescence results from defects in different leukocyte populations, however the dysfunction is most profound in T cells [6, 7]. The responses of T cells from aged individuals are typically slower and of a lower magnitude than those of young individuals […] while not all equally affected by age, the overall T cell number does decline dramatically as a result of thymic atrophy […] T cell differentiation is a highly complex process controlled not only by costimulation but also by the strength and duration of T cell receptor (TCR) signalling [34]. Nearly all TCR signalling pathways have been found altered during ageing […] two phenotypically distinct subsets of B cells […] have been demonstrated to exert immunosuppressive functions. The frequency and function of both these Breg subsets declines with age”.

“The immune impairments in patients with chronic hyperglycemia resemble those seen during ageing, namely poor control of infections and reduced vaccination response [99].” [This is hardly surprising. ‘Hyperglycemia -> accelerated ageing’ seems generally to be a good (over-)simplified model in many contexts. To give another illustrative example from Czernik & Fowlkes text, “approximately 4–6 years of diabetes exposure in some children may be sufficient to increase skin AGEs to levels that would naturally accumulate only after ~25 years of chronological aging”].

“The term “immunosenescence” is commonly taken to mean age-associated changes in immune parameters hypothesized to contribute to increased susceptibility and severity of the older adult to infectious disease, autoimmunity and cancer. In humans, it is characterized by lower numbers and frequencies of naïve T and B cells and higher numbers and frequencies of late-differentiated T cells, especially CD8+ T cells, in the peripheral blood. […] Low numbers of naïve cells render the aged highly susceptible to pathogens to which they have not been previously exposed, but are not otherwise associated with an “immune risk profile” predicting earlier mortality. […] many of the changes, or most often, differences, in immune parameters of the older adult relative to the young have not actually been shown to be detrimental. The realization that compensatory changes may be developing over time is gaining ground […] Several studies have now shown that lower percentages and absolute numbers of naïve CD8+ T cells are seen in all older subjects whereas the accumulation of very large numbers of CD8+ late-stage differentiated memory cells is seen in a majority but not in all older adults [2]. The major difference between this majority of subjects with such accumulations of memory cells and those without is that the former are infected with human herpesvirus 5 (Cytomegalovirus, CMV). Nevertheless, the question of whether CMV is associated with immunosenescence remains so far uncertain as no causal relationship has been unequivocally established [5]. Because changes are seen rapidly after primary infection in transplant patients [6] and infants [7], it is highly likely that CMV does drive the accumulation of CD8+ late-stage memory cells, but the relationship of this to senescence remains unclear. […] In CMV-seropositive people, especially older people, a remarkably high fraction of circulating CD8+ T lymphocytes is often found to be specific for CMV. However, although the proportion of naïve CD8+ T cells is lower in the old than the young whether or not they are CMV-infected, the gross accumulation of late-stage differentiated CD8+ T cells only occurs in CMV-seropositive individuals […] It is not clear whether this is adaptive or pathological […] The total CMV-specific T-cell response in seropositive subjects constitutes on average approximately 10 % of both the CD4+ and CD8+ memory compartments, and can be far greater in older people. […] there are some published data suggesting that that in young humans or young mice, CMV may improve immune responses to some antigens and to influenza virus, probably by way of increased pro-inflammatory responses […] observations suggest that the effect of CMV on the immune system may be highly dependent also on an individuals’ age and circumstances, and that what is viewed as ageing is in fact later collateral damage from immune reactivity that was beneficial in earlier life [47, 48]. This is saying nothing more than that the same immune pathology that always accompanies immune responses to acute viruses is also caused by CMV, but over a chronic time scale and usually subclinical. […] data suggest that the remodeling of the T-cell compartment in the presence of a latent infection with CMV represents a crucial adaptation of the immune system towards the chronic challenge of lifelong CMV.”

The authors take issue with using the term ‘senescence’ to describe some of the changes discussed above, because this term by definition should be employed only in the context of changes that are demonstrably deleterious to health. It should be kept in mind in this context that insufficient immunological protection against CMV in old age could easily be much worse than the secondary inflammatory effects, harmful though these may well be; CMV in the context of AIDS, organ transplantation (“CMV is the most common and single most important viral infection in solid organ transplant recipients” – medscape) and other disease states involving compromised immune systems can be really bad news (“Disease caused by human herpesviruses tends to be relatively mild and self-limited in immunocompetent persons, although severe and quite unusual disease can be seen with immunosuppression.” Holmes et al.)

“The role of CMV in the etiology of […] age-associated diseases is currently under intensive investigation […] in one powerful study, the impact of CMV infection on mortality was investigated in a cohort of 511 individuals aged at least 65 years at entry, who were then followed up for 18 years. Infection with CMV was associated with an increased mortality rate in healthy older individuals due to an excess of vascular deaths. It was estimated that those elderly who were CMV- seropositive at the beginning of the study had a near 4-year reduction in lifespan compared to those who were CMV-seronegative, a striking result with major implications for public health [59]. Other data, such as those from the large US NHANES-III survey, have shown that CMV seropositivity together with higher than median levels of the inflammatory marker CRP correlate with a significantly lower 10-year survival rate of individuals who were mostly middle-aged at the start of the study [63]. Further evidence comes from a recently published Newcastle 85+ study of the immune parameters of 751 octogenarians investigated for their power to predict survival during a 65-month follow-up. It was documented that CMV-seropositivity was associated with increased 6-year cardiovascular mortality or death from stroke and myocardial infarction. It was therefore concluded that CMV-seropositivity is linked to a higher incidence of coronary heart disease in octogenarians and that senescence in both the CD4+ and CD8+ T-cell compartments is a predictor of overall cardiovascular mortality”.

“The incidence and severity of many infections are increased in older adults. Influenza causes approximately 36,000 deaths and more than 100,000 hospitalizations in the USA every year […] Vaccine uptake differs tremendously between European countries with more than 70 % of the older population being vaccinated against influenza in The Netherlands and the United Kingdom, but below 10 % in Poland, Latvia and Estonia during the 2012–2013 season […] several systematic reviews and meta-analyses have estimated the clinical efficacy and/or effectiveness of a given influenza vaccine, taking into consideration not only randomized trials, but also cohort and case-control studies. It can be concluded that protection is lower in the old than in young adults […] [in one study including “[m]ore than 84,000 pneumococcal vaccine-naïve persons above 65 years of age”] the effect of age on vaccine efficacy was studied and the statistical model showed a decline of vaccine efficacy for vaccine-type CAP and IPD [Invasive Pneumococcal Disease] from 65 % (95 % CI 38–81) in 65-year old subjects, to 40 % (95 % CI 17–56) in 75-year old subjects […] The most effective measure to prevent infectious disease is vaccination. […] Over the last 20–30 years tremendous progress has been achieved in developing novel/improved vaccines for children, but a lot of work still needs to be done to optimize vaccines for the elderly.”


December 12, 2016 - Posted by | books, diabetes, medicine

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