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Adverse environmental conditions influence age-related innate immune responsiveness

Linda May1, Anita HJ van den Biggelaar12, David van Bodegom1, Hans J Meij1, Anton JM de Craen1, Joseph Amankwa3, Marijke Frölich4, Maris Kuningas1 and Rudi GJ Westendorp15*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Gerontology and Geriatrics, Leiden University Medical Center, Leiden, the Netherlands

2 Cell Biology Division, Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, Centre for Child Health Research, The University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia

3 Ghana Health Service, Upper East region, Bolgatanga, Ghana

4 Department of Clinical Chemistry, Leiden University Medical Center, Leiden, the Netherlands

5 Netherlands Consortium for Healthy Ageing, Leiden, the Netherlands

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Immunity & Ageing 2009, 6:7  doi:10.1186/1742-4933-6-7

Published: 30 May 2009



The innate immune system plays an important role in the recognition and induction of protective responses against infectious pathogens, whilst there is increasing evidence for a role in mediating chronic inflammatory diseases at older age. Despite indications that environmental conditions can influence the senescence process of the adaptive immune system, it is not known whether the same holds true for the innate immune system. Therefore we studied whether age-related innate immune responses are similar or differ between populations living under very diverse environmental conditions.


We compared cross-sectional age-related changes in ex vivo innate cytokine responses in a population living under affluent conditions in the Netherlands (age 20–68 years old, n = 304) and a population living under adverse environmental conditions in Ghana (age 23–95 years old, n = 562).


We found a significant decrease in LPS-induced Interleukin (IL)-10 and Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF) production with age in the Dutch population. In Ghana a similar age-related decline in IL-10 responses to LPS, as well as to zymosan, or LPS plus zymosan, was observed. TNF production, however, did not show an age-associated decline, but increased significantly with age in response to co-stimulation with LPS and zymosan.


We conclude that the decline in innate cytokine responses is an intrinsic ageing phenomenon, while pathogen exposure and/or selective survival drive pro-inflammatory responses under adverse living conditions.