Scientists from the University of Colorado found why older adults are more likely to get seriously ill or even die from pneumonia.
They found that the cause may have as much to do with the gut as it does with the lungs.
The research is published in Frontiers in Aging and was conducted by Rachel McMahan et al.
In the study, the team looked at the bacteria Streptococcus pneumonia in animal models, studying changes in intestinal microbial populations after infection.
Streptococcus pneumonia is normally carried in the nasal passages of healthy adults. People with healthy immune systems can just live with it, and it doesn’t cause any problems.
But people with compromised immune systems, including older adults, tend to become more susceptible because their immune systems can’t really control the bacteria that are normally there.
Those bacteria can leave the nose and move to other places in the body. They can cause ear infections, and they also can spread to the lungs and cause pneumonia.
The team found elevated levels of the Enterobacteriaceae family of bacteria—a gut-specific bacteria that includes E. coli—in the lungs of aged, but not young animal models, infected with Streptococcus pneumoniae.
As Enterobacteriaceae is linked to increased inflammation, the researchers also discovered higher levels of neutrophils, a type of inflammatory immune cell, in the lungs of the aged infected animal models.
The researchers also found elevated levels of gut-derived bacteria in the lungs, suggesting that bacteria that migrate from the intestine to the lungs may partially be responsible for the poor outcomes in older individuals.
They suggest that as people age, the guts become “leaky” as the mechanisms the body has in place to keep gut bacteria in place start to break down.
This is similar to what happens with burn trauma patients and people who abuse alcohol.
Compounding the problem is that inflammation in the body naturally increases with age, causing more pro-inflammatory bacteria to be present in the gut.
The team’s theory is that as people age, they have a heightened baseline inflammatory response, which then induces the gut to be more pro-inflammatory.
That causes potentially pathogenic bacteria in the gut to leak out into the organs, and then things can go downhill fast.
Older adults are nearly five times more likely to be hospitalized following a pneumonia infection, and mortality rates from pneumonia can exceed 50%, depending on co-morbidities or underlying health conditions.
With the global population of those over the age of 65 growing rapidly, it’s important to find new ways to combat severe infection.
If you care about lung health, please read studies about how to minimize lung damage in COVID patients, and this existing drug can save damaged lungs in COVID-19.
For more information about lung health, please see recent studies about how processed meat impacts your lung function, and results showing long-term cannabis use damages lungs.
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