Inflammation and the Aging Process: How to Stay Healthy and Supple at any Age
In 2019, the Journal of Anatomy published a research paper titled Fascia Thickness, Aging, and Flexibility: Is There an Association? The gist of the study was something we’ve seen before—that when exposed to inflammation or mechanical stress, fascia tends to thicken.
Here are some cherry-picked portions of this research, which was a collaboration between Goethe University’s Department of Sports Medicine in Frankfurt.
“The morphology of the connective tissue may play an important role in locomotor mechanics. Recent research has revealed an association between increased fascia thickness and reduced joint flexibility in patients with chronic pain. The present study aimed to examine the relationship of both factors in healthy individuals, additionally testing the hypothesis that older subjects display a higher fascia thickness. Young [average age 22] and old [average age 69] healthy females were recruited for a quasi-experimental, cross-sectional trial. All participants underwent standardized ultrasound-based thickness measurements of the deep fasciae of the trunk and lower limb. Flexibility was assessed using sit and reach testing (hamstring extensibility) and the Schober test (lumbar flexion and extension). Systematic between-group differences of fascia thickness and variable associations (i.e. fascia thickness and flexibility) were detected. Older participants showed higher thickness in the lumbar spine. Correlations of both body mass and fascia thickness, as well as flexibility and fascia thickness, were found. Age-related changes in fascia thickness may be a contributing factor of restrictions in joint range of motion.”
Aging, Fascia, and Inflammation
There are significant numbers of takeaways from this abstract.
- First, we see that fascia can be imaged. This is neither widely known nor widely utilized here in America. This is probably because most physicians do not know what to make of the technology or how to interpret the tests yet. Also, this is not typically paid for by insurance companies in this capacity, unless maybe when trying to see tendinosis.
- Second, although the changes in fascia thickness were “systematic,” the brunt was found in the thoracolumbar fascia. Once you begin to understand what this magnificent tissue really does and how it works to transfer forces from lower extremities to upper extremities and vice versa, you can start to see why when it becomes dysfunctional, the consequences can be numerous and potentially severe.
- Third, when these authors speak of “age-related changes,” one of the biggest factors we need to be aware of is that, everything else being equal, older people have more inflammation than younger people.
This makes sense once you realize that inflammation is the collective name of a group of immune system compounds released in response to damaged tissue. While small amounts of inflammation are needed for the normal healing process, too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing—in this case, a very bad thing.
What do I mean? For starters, we know that inflammation itself causes a thickening of the fascia that the Steccos have referred to in previous research as “densification.” We also know that the “Cascade of Death” looks almost identical for virtually all disease processes; inflammation ——> fibrosis (scar tissue) ——> degeneration ——-> premature death.
Note that when I talk about degeneration in this context, I am not simply talking about musculoskeletal degeneration, but degeneration of organ systems as well.
- Fourth, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in this study, the thickening of the fascia was also related to body mass. Think about what we already know. Although the numbers are somewhat less in Europe, 70 percent of the American population is either overweight or obese, with another 7 to 10 percent appearing that way via their blood labs. Not shockingly, weighing too much is considered an inflammatory disease, along with a myriad of others from the same family (diabetes or metabolic syndrome/prediabetes for example).
Thus, between their age and weight, huge numbers of suffering geriatric patients already have two strikes against them—most of the time before they ever realize the third strike is on the way to the plate and they haven’t even stepped into the batter’s box. Throw in the fact that the single most important factor in health, gut health, is also known to decline during the aging process, creating even greater potential for suffering (or a reason to party if you are a drug company).
- Fifth, although it was not mentioned here, it’s not news that thickening is seen in any number of other disease processes, cancer included. Once you grasp just how inflammatory junk carbs and sugar really are, it’s not a shock that sugar would be cancer’s prime food choice.
Ditch the Junk Food
After putting it all together, the question then becomes: what are you going to do about it? Are you going to continue to live your life in the same old rut, putting on five pounds or so every year or two, while getting increasingly sedentary? Do you feel you may be too addicted to junk food or soda to take the plunge and actually do something about it? Are you scared of failing? Are you worried that you can’t afford it?
It all comes down to a time-honored prescription we’ve all heard many times: eat wholesome foods in small quantities. Avoid processed foods and sugar. You can do it. Make a commitment and be patient with yourself. Your long-term health is worth it.
No matter what age you are, it’s time to get down to the business of taking your life back. As much as you wish it could be true, while your doctor can keep you loaded up on drugs, he/she can’t do this for you.