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The Toll Chronic Inflammation Takes on The Body

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In an article published in the May-June 2019 issue of Harvard Magazine, “Could Inflammation Be the Cause of Myriad Chronic Conditions?,” the author said you could have a brain full of plaques and tangles, which is usually found in Alzheimer’s patients, but if you don’t also have inflammation in the brain, you don’t get Alzheimer’s. Chronic inflammation is absolutely crucial to the development of Alzheimer’s. According to the article, by interfering with inflammation this pathology could be reversed.

Acute inflammation, such as when you have a sore throat or cut your finger, is a transient form of inflammation. However, following acute inflammation an individual could have long-term smoldering inflammation called systemic chronic inflammation (SCI), which causes a multitude of medical problems.

The article also pointed out that evidence has been mounting showing common chronic conditions could be triggered by low-grade, long-term inflammation. Those conditions include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Cancer
  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Gout
  • Psoriasis
  • Anemia
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Diabetes
  • Depression
  • Parkinsonism

The causes of inflammation include:

  • Daily stress
  • Pollution
  • Tobacco use
  • Processed foods
  • Sugar
  • Refined carbohydrates
  • Inactivity
  • Obesity 

The Cooper Institute published an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine in February 2013 entitled “The Association Between Midlife Cardiorespiratory Fitness Levels and Later Life Dementia.” In this study we followed almost 20,000 people with an average age 49-50 who came to Cooper Clinic for 25 years. The only risk factor we evaluated was their level of fitness as measured by a treadmill stress test. We compared those individuals in the top categories of fitness (good, excellent or superior) with those in the bottom categories of fitness (very poor and poor). Our findings showed those in the top category of fitness were 36% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those in the bottom category. Again the only risk factor we used for comparison was their level of fitness. We didn’t look at their cholesterol, body fat or comorbidities. Now why would that occur? We theorize the reason is those people in the top category of fitness were lean, trim and active during that time. Those in the bottom category of fitness were overweight and inactive resulting in a highly significant difference in their level of chronic inflammation.

We have an epidemic of inactivity and obesity in the United States today which is fueling chronic inflammation in many Americans. Remember what is good for the heart is also good for the brain and these healthy habits can effectively reduce chronic inflammation:

  • Exercise 30 minutes a day, collective or sustained, most days per week
  • Sleep at least seven hours per night
  • Socialize—avoid isolation by joining a club, synagogue, support group or volunteer at your church or in the community
  • Do not use tobacco of any type
  • Drink alcohol in moderation if at all—I don’t drink at all but I recommend both men and women avoid consuming more than one drink a day or seven drinks per week.
  • Supplement properly. Vitamins are extremely important for overall health and immunity as well as dementia prevention. One study has shown having vitamin D blood levels greater than 50 ng/mL offers considerable protection against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

I am passionate about further investigating chronic inflammation and its relationship to chronic diseases. First, I’d like to discover a better way of testing for chronic inflammation and reversing it. Currently the only measure we use is the C-reactive protein, which measures overall inflammation not strictly chronic inflammation. Then we could focus on it in longitudinal studies to see if we could possibly stop or even reverse some of the harmful effects of chronic inflammation.

In looking at the long list of medical conditions that are related to high levels of chronic inflammation, we need to gather more data to properly understand this phenomenon. Our Cooper Center Longitudinal Study contains more data on vitamin D and omega-3 blood levels than probably any clinic in the U.S. Omega-3 is one of the best supplements to reduce chronic inflammation and possibly vitamin D, exercising daily, maintaining a healthy weight and eating a plant-based diet. If you follow these recommendations you potentially could reduce your risk for developing Alzheimer’s by at least 50-60% even though you may already have some amyloid plaques and tau proteins in your brain!

In addition to learning more about chronic inflammation and its causes, education is key to combating it. I am focusing on three main areas:

  1. Get modern preventive medicine back in the curriculum of medical schools. At the present time, all that medical students are taught regarding preventive medicine is the importance of immunizations. 
  2. I want the physicians of the world to not limit their practice to taking care of acute disease, but concentrate more on prevention and particularly the role of SCI. This could have a revolutionary effect in the way medicine is practiced internationally, and that is my hope for the future.   
  3. And finally, let people know that it does not take a lot of money or even direct contact with a physician if you understand that the most underappreciated risk factor in the world today is your lifestyle. Up to 70% of the diseases we have are preventable as are 50-60% of cancers and no drug can replicate the benefits of an active lifestyle. But the key word is discipline. It is not what you did six months ago that counts, it is what you did yesterday!

To learn more about Cooper Clinic preventive exams, click here or call 866.906.2667.

Article provided by Cooper Aerobics Founder and Chairman Kenneth H. Cooper, MD, MPH.