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