Previous work has demonstrated an age-related decline in neutrophil function, including a decline in phagocytic capacity, with age in healthy individuals. This decline in function may contribute to increased susceptibility to bacterial infections in the elderly population. The present study has investigated the effects of age on susceptibility to infection and neutrophil function in elderly humans following mild trauma. Specifically, we have measured neutrophil function in 44 patients, all of whom had no significant co-morbidity, were over 65 years old (mean age 82.5 years) and had sustained a fractured neck of femur. We obtained neutrophils and examined the process of microbial engulfment by phagocytosis and the bactericidal mechanism of superoxide production. In the 5-week period after trauma, almost half of the elderly trauma patients succumbed to bacterial or fungal infection, with a predominance of chest and urinary tract infections. When examining neutrophil function, a decline in superoxide production was observed in neutrophils from the elderly trauma group at the time of hip fracture when compared with those from healthy elderly controls, and this was maintained 5 weeks after trauma. This was accompanied by an age-related reduction in phagocytic function during this period. We propose that trauma and an age-related decline in neutrophil function combine to decrease the immune response to bacteria in the elderly.

Abbreviations used: DHEA, dehydroepiandosterone; fMLP, fMet-Leu-Phe.

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Author notes

678th Meeting of the Biochemical Society, held at Imperial College, London, 16–18 December 2002