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What role does cortisol play in aging?
Deciphering the aging process is the central topic in numerous research projects. German researchers have now added a piece of the puzzle to the overall picture by analyzing the role of the stress hormone cortisol in aging and thus exposing processes in the immune system that contribute to our aging.
A team from Saarland University showed that low levels of the stress hormone cortisol and the protein gilz are associated with chronic inflammatory processes. In turn, such inflammations are significantly involved in aging. The study results were recently presented in the specialist journal "Aging Cell".
How the immune system ages
When people age, the body's defense also ages. The immune system acquired in the course of life shuts down and the innate unspecific immune system becomes increasingly overactive. This results in chronic inflammation, which favors numerous chronic diseases such as atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) or arthritis.
"These processes have long been known to science," reports pharmacy professor Alexandra K. Kiemer from the study team. In the professional world, these processes are called "inflamm aging", an artificial word that is made up of the English terms for inflammation and aging. How exactly the increasing inflammation occurs has not yet been sufficiently understood. In the current study, the researchers are now providing the first answers to this unanswered question.
Cortisol is involved in the aging process
Cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone, and its inactive form of cortisone are formed in the adrenal gland. The hormone is a biochemical messenger and is involved in many metabolic processes in the body. If this messenger substance is not sufficiently available, inflammation will occur.
"In older age, the cortisol level in the body is lower," adds the doctor of pharmacy Jessica Hoppstädter. This deficiency is partially compensated for by macrophages (important immune cells) by producing cortisol from inactive cortisone. But this also works worse with age.
Macrophages also age
"Macrophage occurs - the macrophages age," says Hoppstädter. The immune cells keep getting out of balance, which means that inflammatory messengers are released, because macrophages coordinate other immune cells via messenger substances and are therefore significantly involved in the extent of an inflammatory reaction.
For the first time, the research team identified a protein called Gilz, which could be responsible for this macrophage misregistration. Research suggests that Gilz regulates cortisol. "Gilz is a short form for glucocorticoid-induced leucine zipper," explains Professor Kiemer. The protein appears to be instrumental in a number of important processes in the body. "It can do good, but also bad," concludes the research team.
What role does Gilz play in the immune system?
"It helps to switch off the inflammatory response in macrophages," explains Hoppstädter. The loss of gilz contributes to the fact that macrophages trigger inflammation with increasing age, according to the researchers' hypothesis. According to the study data, the cortisol level initially decreases, which means that macrophages produce less gels, which means that inflammatory messengers are released. For experimental purposes, the researchers genetically switched off gilz production. As a result, increased inflammatory processes developed - which confirmed the suspicion of the team.
Attack against aging process discovered
According to the researchers, this process could be a target for therapies that slow or stop the aging of the immune system. The team is already looking for active ingredients that increase the gilz level in old age. "All of this work is basic research," emphasizes Kiemer. There is still no active ingredient in sight that can stop aging. Nevertheless, a further step towards understanding aging is taken. (vb)
Read also: Can aging be stopped? Faulty proteins age faster.
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
Graduate editor (FH) Volker Blasek
- Saarland University: Aging research: low levels of the stress hormone cortisol contribute to our aging (published: 01.07.2020), uni-saarland.de
- Jenny Vanessa Valbuena Perez, Rebecca Linnenberger, Anna Dembek, u.a .: Altered glucocorticoid metabolism represents a feature of macroph-aging; in: Aging Cell, 2020, onlinelibrary.wiley.com