One of the most widely used painkillers could prevent premature ageing and death by combating inflammation, new UK research suggests.
Scientists have uncovered a strong biological link between chronic inflammation caused by an over-active immune system, accelerated ageing and associated diseases, and shortened lifespan.
They also found a cheap and simple antidote to the toxic effects - the common over-the-counter painkiller ibuprofen.
The drug, taken by millions of Britons every day to treat headaches, muscle aches, sprains and flu symptoms, “rescued” inflammation-prone mice that were genetically engineered to age fast.
“We can now seriously start thinking about inflammation as a potential driver of accelerated ageing”
Thomas von Zglinicki
In a series of experiments, researchers found that ibuprofen not only quelled the animals’ inflammation but also restored their ageing rate to normal levels.
They believe it could do the same for humans displaying signs of low-grade chronic inflammation, thereby protecting them from the ravages of age.
The team is now preparing for future clinical trials by studying published data from other researchers and looking for inflammation markers in cohorts of patients with age-related diseases such as Parkinson’s.
Lead scientist Professor Thomas von Zglinicki, from the Institute for Ageing and Health at the University of Newcastle, said: “People age differently, some much faster than others.
“We know already that faster ageing is often associated with activated markers of chronic inflammation. With these results we can now seriously start thinking about inflammation as a potential driver of accelerated ageing and how we might be able to delay it,” he said.
“Inflammation has side effects and I really would not advise that everybody should take anti-inflammatories daily. But it might be useful to check chronic inflammation status, and if that is enhanced, there might be a case for using anti-inflammatories,” he added.
He stressed that in the experiments, ibuprofen only benefited mice whose rate of ageing had been accelerated. It had no effect on “wild type” mice with normal levels of inflammation and ageing.
The drug should not be seen as a potential “fountain of youth” panacea with the power to defeat ageing in the average person, warned the professor.
Scientists have long-known that inflammation accompanies ageing, but whether or not it plays an active role in the process has been unclear.
The new research, reported in the journal Nature Communications, confirms that chronic inflammation is much more than an innocent bystander.
The “knock-out” mice used in the study lacked a gene that normally limits their inflammatory response but were otherwise completely healthy.
Given the same diet and living conditions as wild-type mice, they aged twice as fast. Mirroring effects seen in humans, they experienced premature hair loss, fur greying, weight loss, impaired neuro-muscular co-ordination, and heart problems.
They also took less pride in their appearance, marked by scruffy fur and infrequent grooming, and both their average and maximum lifespans were reduced.
Critically, the normal regenerative capacity of their livers and intestines was lost.
“These effects could be improved with anti-inflammatory treatment,” said Professor von Zglinicki. “Basically, the knock-out mice were brought back to normal by ibuprofen.”
In tests, livers regrew in treated knock-out mice after part of the organs were removed.
The link between inflammation and ageing was traced to the release of destructive reactive molecules, called oxygen free radicals, which damaged DNA and telomeres - the protective “caps” on chromosomes.
Telomere loss led to the arrested growth and normal functioning of cells, a state known as “senescence” which is thought to contribute to ageing. Greater senescence in turn generated more free radicals, creating a vicious cycle.
The accumulation of senescent cells was blocked both by the treatment of anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and anti-oxidants, the scientists found.
Diana Jurk, a researcher in Professor von Zglinicki’s group, said: “The most important result of the study is that treatment with a simple and cheap anti-inflammatory drug, ibuprofen, could reverse the progression of cell senescence and restore the ability of tissues to regenerate.”
The scientists are now turning their attention to human patients, including one cohort of around 200 people with Parkinson’s disease who may be affected by accelerated ageing.
“We need to see which patients do actually have enhanced inflammatory markers before thinking about intervention trials,” added Professor von Zglinicki.
While certain rare inherited diseases massively speed up the ageing process, the rate at which anyone ages varies greatly between individuals.
“Faster biological ageing is linked to a number of age-related conditions, including heart disease and various cancers.
“Even in people within the normal life span range there can be a big difference,” said Professor von Zglinicki.
“Some might die at 60, others in their 70s, while others make it to 100. The majority of those who die young suffer from cardiovascular disease.”
He added: “There is good epidemiological evidence to show that faster ageing is associated with inflammation.”