Age-related inflammatory cytokines and disease

Immunol Allergy Clin North Am. 2003 Feb;23(1):15-39. doi: 10.1016/s0889-8561(02)00056-5.


Aging is associated with chronic low-grade increases in circulating levels of inflammatory markers. A wide range of environmental factors, including smoking, infections, and obesity, genetic factors, and the declining function of sex hormones may contribute to systemic low-grade inflammatory activity in older individuals. Age-associated disease may exacerbate this phenomenon. The multifunctional cytokines TNF-alpha and IL-6 have been associated with morbidity and mortality in the elderly. Evidence supports the direct role of TNF-alpha in the pathogeneses of atherosclerosis, type 2 DM, and AD in older individuals. Age-related increases in systemic levels of TNF-alpha could provide a unifying basis for these disorders. Furthermore, TNF-alpha induces a catabolic state that causes frailty. Circulating levels of IL-6 seem to be a strong risk factor for frailty in the elderly, which could reflect its association with increased production of TNF-alpha. IL-6 also may be a risk factor for thromboembolic complications. In healthy, elderly populations, high circulating levels of TNF-alpha and IL-6 predict mortality, independent of comorbidity, indicating that TNF-alpha and IL-6 cause morbidity and mortality. In cohorts of frail, older individuals, TNF-alpha and IL-6 also act as disease markers. Circulating levels of TNF-alpha seem to be the best predictor of mortality in frail, elderly populations with a high mortality rate, whereas IL-6 seems to be the strongest risk marker in healthy, elderly populations. This finding could reflect that in relatively healthy old populations the increase in circulating levels of IL-6 represent a systemic response to local proinflammatory activities; however, when age-related inflammatory diseases progress, levels of TNF-alpha increase in the circulation and become gradually a stronger risk marker than IL-6. In conclusion low-grade elevations in levels of circulating cytokines are strong independent risk factors of morbidity and mortality in the elderly, and lifestyle factors and comorbidities may modulate these levels. Exercise and dietary interventions may be possible strategies to decrease inflammatory activity and improve the health status of the elderly.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aging / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Inflammation / immunology*
  • Interleukin-6 / immunology*
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / immunology*


  • Interleukin-6
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha