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The ageing immune system and its clinical implications

  • DTHJ Wordsworth (a1) and DK Dunn-Walters (a1)


Ageing is associated with multiple changes in many different components of the immune system. A healthy immune system exists in a state of balance between efficient effector responses against pathogens and tolerance to self antigens. This balance is changed with age; functions such as antigen recognition, phagocytosis, antigen presentation, chemotaxis, cytokine secretion and killing ability are all compromised. Aberrant cellular responses lead to an altered cytokine network with increases in inflammatory cytokines and decreases in anti-inflammatory cytokines leading to a pro-inflammatory state. Consequently older patients require extra care in diagnosis of infections as symptoms may be perturbed, resulting in unusual presentations of common conditions. The defects in immunity due to immunosenescence also mean that older patients require more care and screening than other patients in the same disease cohort. Though it is generally understood by clinicians that older patients are more at risk from multiple infections, the wider clinical effects of immunosenescence are less understood. The immune system is involved in several neurodegenerative conditions and the inflammatory conditions of immunosenescence may be a key factor in pathogenesis. Similarly, there is reason to believe that immunosenescence might be a key factor explaining the increased incidence of cancer in older age. With increasing understanding of the immune system's involvement in many of these pathological processes, and the contribution that immunosenescence makes to these, more efficient vaccines and novel therapies may be developed to prevent/treat these conditions.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Dr Deborah Dunn-Walters, Department of Immunobiology, King's College London School of Medicine, Guy's Campus, London SE1 9RT. Email:


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