La Plata Medical Society
  Our bodies have evolved over the past 100 million years to respond to injuries with an inflammatory response. Without this response we would succumb to the most minor infection and would never live to pass on our genes to the next generation.

However, this inflammatory response is also the cause of many of our "aging" illnesses and is the topic of the feature article in Time on Feb. 23.

We all have experienced the redness and pain of a small cut or a splinter in the skin. This is the natural response of the body to call in the inflammatory cells to fight the infection and begin the healing process. At times, this response does not stop after the healing has occurred, causing the body to start turning on itself.

Rheumatoid arthritis is the most severe form of the inflammatory response attacking the body. Salicylates and aspirin were the first medicines used to stop the inflammatory response, but now many new synthetic drugs do an even better job with fewer side effects.

Doctors have known for several years that a heart attack is not only a plugging of the coronary (heart) vessels with cholesterol but also an inflammatory response that often sets off the cholesterol buildup. The Time article reaffirms this belief. The statin drugs that are used to lower the bad cholesterol (LDL) have been found to be good anti-inflammatory drugs, and it is believed that some of their benefit in preventing heart attacks is derived from the anti-inflammatory affect.

The development of polyps of the colon can be blocked with the anti-inflammatory drug Celebrex and has led to speculation that other cancers may have an inflammation response as a part of their disease development.

One fascinating finding the Time article mentioned was the delay in onset of Alzheimer's disease in patients who were taking anti-inflammatory drugs for other reasons. Apparently the glial cells in the brain, in their attempt to heal the brain, set up an inflammatory response that can result in Alzheimer's. Aspirin and other anti-inflammatory medications can prevent this response.

As medicine proves that more of the chronic diseases of aging are the result of the inflammatory reaction, more research is being done on preventing these chronic diseases through blocking the inflammatory reaction. Does this mean that everyone should begin taking an aspirin a day starting at age 30? No! Many people are allergic to aspirin and will develop asthma or other severe reactions to it. Sustained aspirin use will increase the person's bleeding tendency which is bad news for an ulcer patient.

The Time article suggests four methods of attack on inflammation. One: Drugs such as aspirin and statins can be used but must be under the direction of a doctor. Two: Exercise is good in removing the fat that contributes to inflammation. Three: A diet low in fat and high in fruits and vegetables containing antioxidants will lower inflammation. Four: Good teeth care with flossing - teeth are a constant source of chronic inflammation.

As I do not have an ulcer nor am I allergic to aspirin, I will continue to take my one adult aspirin a day, as I have for the past 20 years.

Dr. John N. Withers is a practicing general surgeon in Durango.

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