Bird Study Suggests Minor Infections Can Play Major Role in Shortening Lifespan

Recent research shows that mild infections without symptoms of illness can still lead to serious consequences by reducing the lifespan of the infected individuals. The study at Lund University in Sweden has been carried out on malaria-infected migratory birds. The infection is thought to speed up the aging process by shortening the telomeres (i.e., the chromosomes ends) at a faster rate and thereby accelerating senescence. Until now, the research community had believed that mild infections that do not produce symptoms of illness have no effect on survival and reproduction. However, a new study shows that a malaria infection that produces no obvious direct negative effects still has an impact; in the long run, it can have serious consequences in the form of a shortened lifespan. “If this is a general mechanism for any type of mild, chronic infection, which is quite possible, it will mean our study is of major interest to understand the impact that mild illnesses can have on other organisms, including humans,” says Professor Dennis Hasselquist from the Department of Biology, Lund University, Sweden, one of the researchers behind the study. According to the researchers, the new study, which was published in the January 23, 2015 issue of Science, contains a number of very surprising results. Previously, it was thought that a mild infection only produced small, temporary effects that the body could quickly compensate for. “However, our results show instead that these types of small effects that appear harmless effects could accumulate and speed up the body’s aging process, leading to the earlier death of the individual. This is a new, surprising discovery,” says Dr. Staffan Bensch, Professor of Biology at Lund University and another of the authors of the study.
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