My friend Dr. Mark Pettus, medical director at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health says, “Inflammation is connected to every modern disease not just obvious ones such as asthma, arthritis, or infections. It’s associated with heart disease, cancer, dementia, diabetes, obesity, and more.” Dr. Pettus values integrative medicine to lower systemic inflammation. It’s no wonder he’s a big fan of yoga.
Last month here in the everything pages we took a peek at ‘personalized medicine,’ the future of health care, 21st-century style. (Talkin’ About a Revolution) This month we follow on with the work of Dr. Caleb Finch, a gerontologist at USC who for over 35 years has studied the relationship of genetics and aging, including compelling research into inflammation.
Finch is a leader, a focused, prolific researcher in his field. In a 1991 interview with the journal Science Watch, he was already extolling individual response, “There is a very strong possibility that whatever set of genes and individual inherits, it will be possible to learn how to manage the regulation of those genes in an optimum way for adult longevity.” In other words, in addition to understanding the general genetic component of aging, Finch suggests that our individual genetic predisposition to various conditions is something we will all learn to respond to and manage as research in the 21st-century presses ahead with grokking multidimensional organism / environment relationships (you, and the world you live in, and the way you live in it – hello yoga). An Interview with Caleb Finch.
While it’s somewhat unlikely that you’ll want to browse Finch’s early powerhouse “Longevity, Senescence and the Genome” (considered to be a critical milestone in biomedicine and aging) over your lunch, there’s a wonderful, accessible essay by Finch called Aging, Inflammation & the Body Electric, published by Daedalus, an MIT Press journal, in 2006. In it, Finch begins, “Aging, of course, is an immensely complex process governed by multiple gene-environment interactions. No single factor governs aging — biogerontology is a graveyard of single-cause hypotheses.”
Because we know that “before the Industrial Revolution the average lifespan was about 35-40 years,” Finch and other scientists began to examine the relationship between a decline in childhood mortality rates and the increase in longevity since that time. What Finch found was that even if some babies survived childhood in a generation in which many other infants died of diseases, in every later stage of life they had lower survival rates than individuals born in generations where most infants survived childhood diseases.
Finch details, “childhood mortality trends are the strongest predictors of later mortality. In following birth cohorts over their lifespans,” he and other researchers discovered, “that the survivors in birth cohorts with high early-age mortality rates showed much higher mortality rates at all later ages than survivors in birth cohorts with lower early-age mortality rates.”
Finch states, “We hypothesized that this outcome was the result of chronic infections and inflammations accelerating aging processes. For example, rheumatic fever, the result of streptococcus infections, killed many children in the ‘bad old days’ before antibiotics. But the disease continue to affect even its survivors, who rarely lived beyond middle-age, because the bacterial colonization of the valves had weakened their hearts. Thus, it appears that early infections have a strong connection to adult longevity.”
Later in the essay, Finch offers a wonderful metaphor. “When Walt Whitman sang of the “body electric,” he coined a metaphor that turns out to be more literally true than he may have imagined. Our aerobic metabolism is continuously producing free radicals, ‘chemical sparks’ that attack invading microbes with their highly reactive, unpaired electrons.”
These ‘sparks’, while life-saving, can also go rogue. “When microbes enter our bodies, macrophages, one of the most ancient ancient immune cells, are rapidly activated during the ‘acute phase response.’ As the free radicals … diffuse … to attack an infection, however, they also inflict local ‘bystander’ oxidative damage on other cells and molecules.”
Finch continues, “While free radicals play a vital role in the body’s defense as well as in the normal and essential signaling between cells, they an also cause slow yet cumulative damage to irreplaceable molecules and cells.”
Thus, a kind of physiological hypervigilance invoked in our childhoods can linger in an unpredictable, with resulting interactivity, like network effects. What this means is over the course of our lives, no single factor can be a “silver bullet” that will protect us.
“Multiple effects, or ‘pleiotropies,’ underlie a basic principle in aging called ‘antagonistic pleiotropy’: some mechanisms that evolved to mete immediate benefits to the young have delayed consequences that slowly emerge during aging.”
The practice of yoga can instill coordination and restore appropriate levels of response among the body’s resources for maintaining health, including the complex set of physiological responses we know as the immune system. Resetting the baseline of our blood chemistry can lower inflammation.
If you have access to the New York Public Library on the Internet, you can find this essay in the Literature Resource Center online and read it for free. (On the NYPL site, click on databases, then “databases by title.” Or use “journals accessible from home.”)
Aging, Inflammation & the Body Electric by Caleb E. Finch
Daedalus Winter 2006, Vol. 135, No. 1, Pages 68-76
© 2006 American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Caleb E. Finch is ARCO/William F. Kieschnick Professor in the Neurobiology of Aging at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, Professor of Biological Sciences, and University Professor at the University of Southern California. His books include “Longevity, Senescence, and the Genome” (1990) and “Chance, Development, and Aging” (with Thomas Kirkwood, 2000).
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.