There is a great deal of debate on the question of whether or not we know what ageing is (Ref. Cohen et al., 2020). Here, we consider what we believe to be the especially confused and confusing case of the ageing of the human immune system, commonly referred to as "immunosenescence". But what exactly is meant by this term? It has been used loosely in the literature, resulting in a certain degree of confusion as to its definition and implications. Here, we argue that only those differences in immune parameters between younger and older adults that are associated in some definitive manner with detrimental health outcomes and/or impaired survival prospects should be classed as indicators of immunosenescence in the strictest sense of the word, and that in humans we know remarkably little about their identity. Such biomarkers of immunosenescence may nonetheless indicate beneficial effects in other contexts, consistent with the notion of antagonistic pleiotropy. Identifying what could be true immunosenescence in this respect requires examining: (1) what appears to correlate with age, though generality across human populations is not yet confirmed; (2) what clearly is part of a suite of canonical changes in the immune system that happen with age; (3) which subset of those changes accelerates rather than slows aging; and (4) all changes, potentially population-specific, that accelerate agig. This remains an immense challenge. These questions acquire an added urgency in the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, given the clearly greater susceptibility of older adults to COVID-19.
Keywords: Cytomegalovirus; Human immunosenescence; Inflammageing; Longitudinal study; Vaccination.
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