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April 22, 2020, 4:20 p.m. EDT

The science behind why older immune systems are more vulnerable to COVID-19

The virus can actually stimulate the airway to produce what’s known as a ‘cytokine’ storm, one expert says

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By The American Federation for Aging Research

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In China, one of the key indicators for severe COVID-19 cases in the ICU was when patients developed what we call lymphopenia — a dangerously low level of lymphocytes in the blood — between four and six days after disease onset. Lymphocytes are white blood cells that include T cells and B cells, which are critical immune cells. So they found the virus killed both CD4 and CD8 cells, which are the two major categories of T cells. Those severe cases where patients developed lymphopenia in day four to six resulted in very poor outcomes. Most of these patients died from COVID-19.

The key issue is really, how can we help increase the immune function of older adults, which will help to limit the severity of the disease?

So, the virus is kind of a double whammy for older adults. When you think about it, older adults have a weaker immune system to start with, so it’s easier for the virus to get in and grow there. And then when this virus starts to kill those remaining immune cells, it will make outcomes for older adults even worse.

You’ve said that some of your colleagues on the front lines of the pandemic refer to COVID-19 as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) plus HIV. What do they mean by that?

Some of my friends in China have experience dealing with SARS, and they think COVID-19 is worse. They say it’s like SARS plus HIV. It’s actually worse than HIV, because HIV only kills CD4 T cells. But this thing kills both CD4 and CD8 T cells.

Why is the geroscience approach necessary to lessen the severity of viruses including COVID-19 in older adults?

Geroscience addresses resiliency and the ability of older adults to fight infections and other diseases by targeting the underlying biology of aging, rather than just a specific pathogen. Even within the coronavirus family, we had SARS, we had MERS, and now we have COVID-19. So, going after specific individual pathogens, which is the traditional paradigm, won’t work.

The key issue is really, how can we help increase the immune function of older adults, which will help to limit the severity of the disease?

Even if we develop the best vaccine — the most potent vaccine — in the world, if a person, particularly an older adult, does not respond well or is not able to mount a good immune response, then it really doesn’t matter. Instead of focusing only on the virus, we really need to focus on the host, on older adults. It’s obvious.

If an older adult’s immune system is not working well, no matter what vaccine you give, it’s not going to be able to mount a good immune protection.

Learn more about geroscience and COVID-19

For more of Leng’s insights on the unique impact of COVID-19 on older adults globally and for additional expert perspectives on promising geroprotectors that target age-related disease by targeting the biology of aging, check out the video of this recent AFAR webinar “ COVID-19: Can the Science of Aging Move us Forward?

The American Federation for Aging Research  is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to support and advance healthy aging through biomedical research. @AFARorg

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org , © 2020 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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