University of Tartu: Monocytes Cause More Inflammation as We Get Older

Monocytes (5 to 10% of white blood cells) in older people produce less energy and have more inflammation than younger people.

white Blood Cells

white Blood Cells

All over the world and especially in Europe, people are living longer and longer. This is why several European countries, including Denmark and the Netherlands, have set up institutes and centers of expertise to tackle the problems associated with an aging population. In Estonia, when studying the differences between the immune systems of young and old, researchers have found that monocytes (which make up about 5-10% of white blood cells) of the latter produce less energy and have more inflammation. Ultimately, the results of this study, recently published in Aging Cell magazine, may help slow down age-related changes.

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For their research, researchers from the Institute of Biomedical and Translational Medicine at the University of Tartu, in collaboration with colleagues from Tartu University Hospital and the Estonian Genome Center, focused on monocytes. Like all other white blood cells or leukocytes, monocytes come from haematopoietic cells in the bone marrow. However, they have special properties that help them fight viruses and other pathogens. They evolve throughout life.

In the past, research had already made the link between aging and monocytes. “For example, they are known to be associated with inflammatory processes that take place in the body. There is a link between monocytes and vascular calcification or atherosclerosis (two diseases manifested by the appearance of plaques on the walls of the arteries),” explains Pärt Peterson, Professor of Molecular Immunology at the University of Tartu, among others.

Increased intracellular markers of inflammation in the elderly

Based on this information, the researchers wanted to investigate what changes occurred in young monocytes compared to the changes observed in the elderly. “We found that the expression of many genes varies in the monocytes of the elderly. The changes occurred mainly in genes related to protein synthesis and in the work of the mitochondria, i.e. the energy centers of the cells. It can be said that monocytes from older people do not seem to produce as much energy as cells from younger people,” notes Peterson.

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Another interesting finding is that researchers have observed an increase in intracellular markers of inflammation in the elderly, probably accompanied by a general increase in inflammatory levels. They also noted a higher percentage of certain lipids in the elderly. For example, the excessive accumulation of lipid compounds in monocytes can be associated with plaques forming on the walls of blood vessels and thus with atherosclerosis, Peterson says.

“Time will show us if there’s anything we can do to slow down age-related changes. In any case, this study will give us an idea of where we need to go. Looking to the future, it would be a great success if we could slow down or even avoid the process of vascular calcification,” the researcher hopes. It’s the appearance of plaques on the walls of the arteries through the deposition of dead cells, cholesterol, fatty acids and lipids.

Worldwide, 125 million people are 80 years of age or older.

According to the WHO, in 2018, 125 million people worldwide were 80 years of age or older. In most cases, aging is associated with hearing loss, cataracts, back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, depression or dementia (Alzheimer’s disease in the vast majority of cases).

“Old age is also characterized by the emergence of several complex health conditions that usually occur late in life and do not constitute separate categories of disease. These are commonly referred to as geriatric syndromes. Geriatric syndromes, such as vulnerability, urinary incontinence, falls, delusions and bedsores, are often the result of various underlying factors,” says the WHO.

Finally, although some of the observed differences in the health of elderly people are genetic, most of them can be explained by the physical and social environment. For example, maintaining a balanced diet, regular exercise and avoiding tobacco and alcohol helps reduce the risk of many non-communicable diseases and improves physical and mental health at all ages. Individual characteristics (e.g. gender, ethnicity or socio-economic status) also influence an individual’s aging process from childhood onwards.


Monocytes present age‐related changes in phospholipid concentration and decreased energy metabolism

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