Risk for inflammation rises with age

Thursday, March 24, 2005

An inflamed body might sound poetic.

But in reality: not good.

In fact, inflammation is just down right bad for everything. Increasingly, it is implicated in all sorts of ills: diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, allergies, asthma, Alzheimer's, colitis, multiple sclerosis, obesity, bleeding gums, ulcers, even some types of cancers.

I told you it was bad.

According to Jack Chaleem, in his book, "The Inflammation Syndrome," "Everyone experiences inflammation at one time or another, and we actually need it to survive. But chronic inflammation is a sign that something has gone seriously awry with your health. Instead of protecting and healing, chronic inflammation breaks down your body and makes you older and more frail."

Chaleem describes the inflammation syndrome as a very slippery slope. Obesity is just one example of how inflammation takes hold in the body and starts a cascade of troubles. Fat cells secrete chemicals that cause inflammation. Obesity's strong relationship to so many other diseases is partly due to this inflammation response. Obesity can lead to adult-onset diabetes, which can lead to periodontitis (dental inflammation). These three illnesses, taken together, increases the overall level of inflammation in the body. This chronic inflamed condition can further lead to the dreaded coronary heart disease, which is our No. 1 killer.

Increasingly, medical science is recognizing coronary artery disease as an inflammatory disease of the arteries.

I reported in a recent Health-Span column about C-reactive protein, a promising biomarker that measures the amount of inflammation in our bodies.

While cholesterol testing has traditionally been the main blood screening for coronary artery disease, the CRP test is gaining respect. Why? Because half of all heart attack victims have normal cholesterol levels and therefore are hit unaware by the cardiac event. It is estimated that up to 30 million Americans have low cholesterol and yet high CRP levels.

The two tests actually measure different concerns. Cholesterol readings measure the amount of artery-clogging plaque. The CRP test gives an indication of how likely inflamed artery walls are to rupture and flood the blood stream with plaque-filled clots.

(Remember that the CRP is a test for general inflammation -- which could result from many events other than cardiac related -- and therefore must be interpreted by your physician in the context of your complete clinical history.)

So what causes this dastardly event we know as inflammation?

According to Chaleem, it is often related to dietary imbalances or deficiencies, "which then prime the immune system for a powerful and chronic inflammatory reaction."

But once the body is "primed" there are certain triggers that take advantage of its overreactive state. It is good to know what your triggers are in order to make an honest assessment of your exposure to them.

According to Chaleem, there are six: Physical injuries, infections, environmental stressors (such as sunburn, tobacco, air pollution), allergies (pollen, mold) and food sensitivities. And, wouldn't you know it: age-related wear and tear.

Dietary imbalances and deficiencies are also considered by many experts to be causes of inflammatory process. The good news about this is that we can do a lot to change our diet, and thus to positively impact the amount of inflammation in our bodies.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at mseabaugh@ semissourian.com.

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