Meet the expert: Professor Janet Lord is head of the School of Immunity and Infection at the University of Birmingham and also Director of the Medawar Centre for Healthy Ageing Research. Her research focuses on the causes of ageing and how health can be maintained into old age
If you have arthritis you’re probably well acquainted with inflammation. But inflammation can also happen undetected inside your body and has been linked with a range of age-related health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
"There are different levels,” explains Professor Janet Lord, Director of the Medawar Centre for Healthy Ageing Research. “Some, such as rheumatoid arthritis, cause obvious symptoms and can only be relieved with medical treatment. But scientists have also discovered that low-grade inflammation grumbles away in your body making you age faster, a condition that experts have called ‘inflamm-ageing’.”
This generally starts to develop post-menopause when levels of protective oestrogen drop. “Your immune system can also become a bit more inflamed with age, making you susceptible to illness,” says Janet.
Inflammation is part of your body’s immune response and helps fight infection and foreign substances such as bacteria and viruses, so it isn’t always a negative thing.
“It’s long-term, inappropriate inflammation that causes problems. Trial data has shown it can raise your risk of dementia, and other research has linked it with cardiovascular disease. It has also been associated with osteoarthritis and Type 2 diabetes. But the good news is, chronic inflammation is treatable and there’s a lot you can do to help yourself.
“Obesity leads to low-level chronic inflammation, and is one reason why being overweight increases your risk of a range of age-related diseases including heart disease,” says Janet. Even middle-aged spread is a risk. “Fat not only builds up around your middle, it also infiltrates your muscles, where it releases inflammatory substances called cytokines. Pay attention to your waist-hip ratio more than your overall weight. Even if you haven’t gained pounds, putting on inches around your waist can be a problem.” Aim for a waist measurement of less than 80cm (31½in) if you’re a woman and 94cm (37in) if you’re a man. For help losing weight, visit www.yoursdietclub.co.uk
“Being active helps keep fat levels down, plus your muscles make hormones that dampen inflammation,” says Janet. “You don’t have to go to the gym or run – fitting activity into your daily life is ideal. Take a brisk 20-minute walk every day and take the stairs wherever possible – going up and down stairs is wonderful exercise.” If you have trouble getting up and out why not try some chair-based exercises? You can get a DVD of simple chair-based exercises from www.moveitorloseit.co.uk or call 0800 612 0450.
Eat more fruit and veg
Fruit and vegetables are packed with antioxidants, and research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found they are beneficial for reducing inflammation. This could explain why eating plenty of fruit and veg helps reduce your risk of heart disease and dementia. Aim for at least five portions of fruit and veg a day.
Exercise alone isn’t enough – you also need to avoid sitting too much. “Even if you walk in the morning, if you spend the rest of the day sitting, you’re undoing the good you’ve done,” says Janet. As you sit, your muscles start to break down and you lose the benefits of the anti-inflammatory substances they make. Don’t sit still too long; get up once an hour to make a cup of tea or do some housework. Do the ironing while watching TV and try to stand when on public transport.
Choose the right fats
Eating too much saturated fat could increase your risk of inflammation. Try to have fewer portions of cheese, butter, cream, cakes, biscuits and red meat. “Instead, increase your intake of polyunsaturated fat from vegetable oils,” says Janet. Try olive oil and safflower oil, nuts, seeds and avocados. Olive oil contains an anti-inflammatory compound called oleocanthal, which has a similar action to ibuprofen, a common anti-inflammatory drug.
From time to time, we all experience moments of stress and that’s a good thing – if it’s short lived. “The momentary stress you feel before an important phone call or confrontation actually boosts your immune system,” says Janet. “But chronic, ongoing stress, such as bereavement, caregiving, or hip fractures, are known to contribute to inflammation.”
While you can’t always control what’s going on in your life, there are ways to boost your resilience. Making time for friends and family or volunteering in your community could help to fight stress and the inflammation that it can cause. “Activity is also important as it helps keep the stress hormone cortisol under control and raises levels of DHEA, an anti-stress hormone that declines naturally from the age of 30,” says Janet. Yoga and tai chi are excellent stress relievers.
Some supplements containing green-lipped mussel extract – high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats – is helpful in easing pain and inflammation in osteoarthritis. Try a topical gel such as Pernaton (£9.75/125ml) for painful joints (www.well being-uk.com, 0121 444 6585).
Get 15 minutes’ daily exposure to sun to top up your Vitamin D – important for helping your body control inflammation. In the winter, try a supplement such as BetterYou D-Lux 3000 Vitamin D Spray (£7.95/15ml), Holland & Barrett.
“Zinc could help support your immune system,” says Janet. Try Healthspan Multivitality Gold (£8.95/180 tablets), 0800 731 2377, www.healthspan.co.uk
"A supplement eased my sore joints"
Bonnie Williams (62), from St Albans, is retired. “I’ve always led a very active lifestyle, playing golf, swimming and gardening, but about 15 years ago I started experiencing joint problems. Overnight my joints would become stiff, meaning I would wake up in agony. My hands seized up and I couldn’t move my knee. I was in pain and unable to do the things I loved doing.
“I changed my diet to ensure I was eating things like rapeseed oil, soya beans and walnuts, which are said to help with joint issues. I regularly used oral painkillers, but was worried about side effects
“A friend introduced me to Regenovex, a supplement containing green-lipped mussel. I’ve been using the gel on my hands before bed and it has made all the difference,. When I wake now I don’t feel pain in my troubled areas. I’m now doing things I never thought I would be able to do again – even swimming!”