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Inflammation presages many a chronic disease.

When inflammation persists, the immune system produces C-reactive protein (CRP) as a bellwether. When an infection takes hold, CRP levels are increased, which serves as an SOS response to contain the infecting pathogen. The amounts of CRP in the blood are also increased as a result of inflammation.

In the wake of inflammation, the immune system produces a class of proteins called cytokines to offset the inflammatory stimulus. Among the cytokines, interleukin(IL)-6 is one of the first and most important markers. Whenever there is an increase in IL-6 levels, there is trouble. There is a fairly good correlation between high concentrations of IL-6 to heart disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, type II diabetes, certain cancers, periodontal disease and intense reactions to viral infections.

Recent work shows that IL-6 can be monitored relatively easily, which can help prevent the onset of many different conditions. Foremost among them is high blood pressure, which appropriately is called the 'silent killer'. Researchers have found that an increase in IL-6 levels is nearly always associated with high blood pressure. Over the long haul, blood pressure takes a heavy toll on the heart, damages the kidneys, and may impair the function of the liver as well.

So sensitive is the level of IL-6 to the maintenance of general health, that even stress has a profound effect on it. Stress is largely dismissed as a 'part of life'. Chronic stress can have serious consequences. In one study, it was found that seniors who must care for their incapacitated spouses have much higher levels of IL-6 than seniors with healthy spouses.

By the same token, another inflammatory marker, tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-), a close relative of IL-6 in the cytokine family, can run amok. Keeping TNF- under control can reverse the course of sepsis, an often-lethal blood infection that shuts down vital organs very quickly.

This brief overview shows how central a risk factor inflammation is in the onset of chronic, age-related diseases. To keep inflammation under control, C-reactive protein, IL-6 and TNF- are markers that can be tested regularly by blood draws. Physicians do not routinely order tests for these markers, but for a little extra cost, profiling of these markers can make a world of difference between health and disease.

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