A new study titled “The human immune system is robustly maintained in multiple equilibriums by age and cohabitation” and published in the journal Nature Immunology reveals that co-parenting a child influences changes in the immune systems of partners much more than a flu vaccine or gastroenteritis would affect an individual’s immune system.
The study was carried out by researchers from VIB and KU Leuven in Belgium and the Babraham Institute in Cambridge.
The researchers examined 670 individuals of age 2-86 years to determine what actually influences changes in the immune systems of individuals – regardless of age, gender, and medical conditions; they found it is co-parenting a child together. They find co-parenting a child has a very potent effect on the immune system much more than vaccines, obesity, age, gender, and a number of other factors.
"This is the first time anyone has looked at the immune profiles of two unrelated individuals in a close relationship,” said Dr. Adrian Liston, a researcher at VIB and KU Leuven and one of the researchers. “Since parenting is one of the most severe environmental challenges anyone willingly puts themselves through, it makes sense that it radically rewires the immune system - still, it was a surprise that having kids was a much more potent immune challenge than severe gastroenteritis.”
But Dr. Liston is not done yet, he added that: “That's at least something for prospective parents to consider - the sleep deprivation, stress, chronic infections and all the other challenges of parenting does more to our body than just gives us grey hairs. I think that any parents of a nursery- or school-age child can appreciate the effect a child has on your immune system!"
The participants in the study were monitored over a 3-year period, with the researchers tracking their immune systems to detect changes that could have been produced by co-parenting a child vis-à-vis other factors such as illness, aging, and other medical factors.
“Our research shows that we all have a stable immune landscape which is robustly maintained,” said Dr. Michelle Linterman, a researcher at the Babraham Institute. “What is different between individuals is what our individual immune systems look like. We know that only a small part of this is due to genetics. Our study has shown that age is a major influence on what our immune landscapes look like, which is probably one of the reasons why there is a declining response to vaccination and reduced resistance to infection in older persons.”
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Two European Research Council grants were applied to fund the research, while Dr. Linterman and her team from Babraham Institute were supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council; and Dr. Liston and his team was sponsored by VIB and KU Leuven in Belgium.