PUMPING IRONY: Granted Immunity

New research wants us to believe that popping a few pills will strengthen our immune system as we age, but it ignores the consequences.

red, white and blue pills
Ibuprofen: A cure for the aging immune system?

I’m happy to report that my mother-in-law, Shirley, continues to improve and will move from a hospice facility into a nursing home today to begin physical therapy. At 85, her body is still resilient enough to fight off the effects of the stroke that sent her to the emergency room two weeks ago. There are many lessons to be learned from this, but the one I think I’ll carry with me is maybe the most obvious: Keep your immune system in good working order as you age and you can survive almost anything.

Even conventional doctors are beginning to figure this out. As Pamela Weintraub noted in a recent issue of EL, so-called integrative oncologists are focusing on their patients’ “terrain” in a more holistic approach to cancer treatment. Boosting the immune system is key to both fighting the cancer and preventing the disease in the first place.

“For almost any chronic disease, inflammation is at the root,” says University of Texas cancer researcher and biochemist Bharat Aggarwal, PhD. “Most cancer starts by the age of 20.” As the body ages, he explains, toxic exposures mount and genetic damage accrues. Depending on inflammation and the overall condition of a person’s terrain, that deterioration may eventually result in a life-threatening cancer, perhaps many years or decades later.”

Beware of Shortcuts

This is all about healthy eating, exercise, stress management — the basics of good health — but as is often the case with industrial medicine, researchers are always looking for shortcuts. So I was not surprised to learn recently that Ohio State University scientists were hyping the anti-inflammatory benefits of ibuprofen as a way to strengthen the immune systems of geezers like me.

The study, published in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology, showed that ibuprofen boosted the ability of older mice to fight off an infection. In fact, it ramped up their immune systems to the point where it was just as effective as that of the youngsters. “This may give new meaning to the phrase ‘take two aspirins and call me in the morning,'” John Wherry, Ph.D., the journal’s deputy editor, told Science Daily. “The report may not be about aspirin, but it does show that over-the-counter remedies may have broader value than usually appreciated, including by affecting immune functions that change with age.”

Theoretically, at least, this is good news for Geezerville. All I’ve got to do to keep the old immune system in fighting shape is pop a few Tylenol, or any of the other popular NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) available at my local drug store, and I should be good to go.

Probably not a good idea, though. Overuse of NSAIDs sends as many as 100,000 Americans to the hospital every year with gastrointestinal disorders. It can actually impair healing, increase inflammation, and even lead to autoimmune diseases. (Read more about the dangers of NSAIDs here.)

There are no shortcuts to good health or longevity. And no guarantees that all the good things you believe you’re doing to prolong your time on this mortal plane are going to pan out the way you’ve hoped. What Shirley’s taught me in these last couple of weeks is to simply do the best you can, stay positive, and trust your body to roll with the punches.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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