Wake up & smell the anti-inflammation

A new study, published in Nature Medicine, has found that caffeine can block the processes of age-related inflammation. Inflammation is an immune response, important for fighting infection and clearing toxic products from our bodies.

However, chronic low-level inflammation is an emerging player in our understanding of ageing, and is thought to be involved in up to 90 per cent of non-communicable diseases such as cancer and heart disease. This study revolves around the inflammatory cytokine IL-1B, which is elevated in older people. Heightened levels of this cell-signalling molecule have previously been linked to high blood pressure, stiffening of the arteries, and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The study, led by David Furman and Mark Davis of Stanford University, used a long-term research group – the Stanford-Ellis cohort – to gather data. Established a decade ago, the 100-member cohort was examined annually. This allowed researchers to follow the stability or decline in health in the cohort, both from self-reported lifestyle choices and their blood metabolites.

First, blood sample comparisons between the younger and older age groups identified two gene families that were elevated in older people. These gene clusters were involved in activating inflammation responses, including the production and maturation of IL-1B. The researchers then separated the older group into high and low levels of IL-1B to confirm if heightened levels of this molecule is correlated with poorer health. Reviewing the medical history of the subjects, the higher group were much more likely to have high blood pressure. From the self-reported survey, those in the low group were more likely to have relatives who lived past 90, while those in the high group in 2008 were more likely to have died by 2016.

The caffeine connection was made through lifestyle surveys, with the low group reporting a higher level of caffeine consumption, verified using blood samples. However, this link needed to be confirmed, as well as any mechanism by which caffeine could be beneficial. The researchers treated cultured immune cells with the inflammation-inducing molecules, with or without caffeine. They measured the cells’ production of IL-1B, and found that less was produced in the caffeine-treated cells. The researchers theorise, therefore, that the structural similarity of caffeine to the inflammatory molecules allows the caffeine molecules to block their action.

Although we coffee-addicted students might be quick to clutch our mugs and argue that we are helping to protect our future selves from some of the ravages of ageing, it has not been conclusively proven. Future studies will be needed to verify exactly how caffeine might help prevent the production of IL-1B but, in the short-term at least, it seems that higher caffeine intake is beneficial in older people.

Image Credit: Natalie Collins

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