Why Does Sickness Come with Age?

If you think it's just a failure of the immune system, think again. Breaking down the complex web of causes could prove vital to us all.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

Why is it that older people get sick more often than young people? The biggest assumption we have is that the reason old people get sick is because their immune systems don’t work. Dawn Bowdish, Associate Professor in the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine at McMaster University, has actually found that this simply isn’t true. The immune systems in older people are functional, they just work differently.

Prof. Bowdish’s research examines the interplay between our immune system and pathogenic bacteria, and how this relationship changes as we age. She is particularly interested in the role the microbiome of our upper respiratory system plays in protecting us from diseases like pneumonia and why people become more susceptible to these diseases as they age. Through her work we could see the development of care tailored specifically to the age of the individual and not just to their symptoms.

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Dawn Bowdish is an Associate Professor at McMaster University and a Canada Research Chair in Aging & Immunity. Prof. Bowdish did her PhD at the University of British Columbia with Prof. Bob Hancock where she studied the anti-infective properties of antimicrobial peptides. This work led to a patent and the formation of a small biotech company. She did her post-doctoral work with Prof. Siamon Gordon at the University of Oxford and studied how white blood cells called macrophages recognize the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. She started her lab at McMaster in 2009 where her team of post-doctoral fellows, undergraduate and graduate students study the process of macrophage phagocytosis, how macrophages influence the composition of the microbiome of the upper respiratory tract and how they recognize and destroy Streptococcus pneumoniae, the major cause of pneumonia in the elderly. She has won a number of early career awards including the Pfizer-ASPIRE award and the G. Jeannette Thorbecke Award from the Society of Leukocyte Biology. Her lab is funded by the CIHR, NSERC, the NIH, the Labarge Optimal Aging Initiative and the Lung Association.

Allison Guy is a freelance science writer who is passionate about increasing scientific literacy and enhancing scientific discourse among the public. She holds a MSc in neuroscience from the University of Toronto and has been working as a drug development consultant for the pharmaceutical industry both domestically and abroad for the last 5 years. She is also a lecturer at Ryerson University in the Department of Chemistry and Biology and at the G. Raymond Chang School where she teaches pharmaceutical development and regulation.