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Age and Immunity

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Broadcast Date: Thursday 26 July 2007
Summary: Is ill health an inevitable part of getting older?  Scientists at the University of Brimingham don't think so.

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Synopsis

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Is ill health an inevitable part of growing older? We all assume that, as we age, we’ll suffer from increasing ill health.
Now new research from the University of Birmingham, in the West Midlands of England, suggests that failing health doesn’t have to be part of the aging process.
Research from the University has uncovered changes to our immune systems which may explain why we become more vulnerable to common infections as we get older.
Researchers have shown that as we age greater numbers of helper T-Cells, which play a key role in directing the immune system, become sidelined in responding to Cytomegalovirus, or CMV - a Herpes virus, which typically infects around 7 in 10 people.
For most of us the virus will remain dormant, without causing any obvious symptoms, although it is a serious health problem amongst patients with compromised immune systems.
Now the University’s researchers have found that the number of T-Cells responding to the CMV virus was more than twice as high in an older test group, volunteers in their 60s, than a younger comparison group in their 40s. On average nearly 6% of their total T Cell response was directed at CMV compared to only 2.3% in the younger group. 
The study also showed that donors infected with CMV had fewer T helper cells that were capable of responding to newly encountered pathogens and this suggests the presence of CMV in the body may compromise the immune system.
Traditionally CMV has been seen as a harmless virus, because it doesn’t produce symptoms in most healthy people. However, this study backs up the evidence that CMV may have a malign impact on our immune systems as we get older, eating up valuable resources that could be directed elsewhere.
The value of this research is that, armed with this information, scientists may well be able to address these problems in the future - sending out the message that we shouldn’t accept that ill health is an inevitable part of getting older.
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Page contact: Kelly Newton Last revised: Fri 27 Jul 2007
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