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Common cat parasite linked to frailty in older adults

A recent study has revealed a link between the common, cat-borne parasite Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) and the onset of frailty in older adults. The study sheds new light on the potential long-term impacts of this parasitic infection.

Significant health risks

The study’s authors, including Professor Christopher Lowry of CU Boulder, emphasize that a causal relationship has not been proven, but the strong association suggests that further research is needed to understand the implications of T. gondii on aging.

“We often think of T. gondii infection as relatively asymptomatic, but this study highlights that for some people it may have significant health consequences later on,” said Professor Lowry.

Focus of the study

In the study, blood samples and health markers related to frailty were analyzed from over 600 older adults. Frailty is a condition that is characterized by unintentional weight loss, exhaustion, reduced mobility, muscle loss and cognitive decline.

What the researchers learned 

The analysis revealed that 67 percent of the study participants had signs of a latent infection. The experts discovered that higher antibody levels against the parasite correlated with an increased likelihood of being frail.

According to the researchers, higher antibody levels could reflect a more virulent or widespread infection, multiple infections or recent reactivation of a latent infection.

Study significance 

“This paper is important because it provides, for the first time, evidence of the existence of a link between frailty in older adults and intensity of the response to T. gondii infection,” said co-author Professor Blanca Laffon.

This association has raised questions about the parasite’s role in age-related inflammation and muscle wasting. 

While T. gondii is often harbored in the body without notice, its long-term presence, especially when reactivated, could lead to serious health implications, including mental health issues and increased risk-taking behaviors.

How the parasite is spread

Cats, as the definitive hosts of T. gondii, can spread the parasite through their feces. When a cat is infected, the parasites form oocysts that are shed in the cat’s feces. These oocysts can survive in the environment for many months and can infect humans and other animals if ingested. 

The infection can occur through handling cat litter or soil that contains cat feces, contaminated food or water, and undercooked meat.

Silent threat

Up to 15 percent of Americans have been infected with T. gondii at some point, and these rates are higher among older individuals. In some countries, more than 65 percent have been infected. 

The parasite can remain dormant for years, and calls for more investigation into how it might be managed or prevented from causing harm, particularly among vulnerable populations like the elderly or those with compromised immune systems.

Study implications 

The findings suggest a need for further research into how T. gondii infection could exacerbate “inflammaging,” a term referring to the chronic inflammation that accompanies aging.

The researchers hope their work will spur further exploration into the T. gondii-frailty connection and lead to strategies that mitigate the parasite’s negative effects on health. 

Meanwhile, they advise caution to avoid infection. It’s especially important for pregnant women and immunocompromised individuals to take precautions.

The study is published in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences

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