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March 12, 2019

Chronic Inflammation’s Role in Memory Loss

People who have chronic inflammation in middle age have an increased risk for developing memory and thinking problems in the following decades, researchers have found.

The study, recently published in the journal Neurology, tracked 12,000 people with an average age of 57 for two decades and found those participants who had high levels of inflammation markers in their 40s, 50s and early 60s had a higher rate of cognitive decline as they aged.

Study authors noted the effects of chronic inflammation in midlife may have a more devastating impact than those of chronic hypertension.

“Overall, the additional change in thinking and memory skills associated with chronic inflammation was modest, but it was greater than what has been seen previously associated with high blood pressure in middle age," explained study co-author Keenan Walker, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University.

While increased inflammation in midlife was associated with higher declines in memory, it had no effect on language or executive function, study authors noted.

What is Chronic Inflammation?

Our bodies experience two kinds of inflammation — acute and chronic. Acute inflammation happens when you get injured or have a brief illness. It’s localized, short-term and part of a healthy immune response from our bodies. But low-grade inflammation that lasts for weeks or months can be harmful.

"Chronic inflammation is tough on the body, and can damage joints, internal organs, tissue and cells," Walker said. "It can also lead to heart disease, stroke and cancer.”

Symptoms of Chronic Inflammation

If you break your arm, for example, you’ll notice the injury. You have pain, swelling and redness, all signs of localized inflammation. Chronic inflammation presents with subtle clues, like:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Rashes
  • Chest pain
  • Abdominal pain
  • Joint pain or stiffness

These symptoms can last months or years. If you are experiencing ongoing symptoms like the ones above or any symptoms that worry you, talk to your doctor.

Chronic inflammation can be caused by untreated sources of acute inflammation like infections or injuries, autoimmune disorders or long-term exposure to chemicals or polluted air. Smoking, obesity, excessive alcohol use and stress can also impact chronic inflammation.

How to Treat Chronic Inflammation

Steroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) can help reduce inflammation. NSAIDS can also be used to treat pain, but should not be used long-term. Steroids work to reduce inflammation by suppressing the immune system, which can be useful if you’re suffering from an autoimmune disorder.

Supplements like fish oil or lipoic acid have been shown to help reduce inflammation.

Your diet can also play a role in fighting chronic inflammation. Foods like red meat, processed foods and refined carbohydrates can contribute to inflammation, but foods that can help include:

  • Olive oil
  • Dark leafy greens like spinach and kale
  • Tomatoes
  • Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel
  • Nuts

If you’re concerned about your symptoms or have questions about your diet, talk to your doctor.

 Brain health questions answered

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