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Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves exposure to oxygen at up to three times the normal pressure, increasing the amount of oxygen the blood can carry. A 2020 study found that hyperbaric oxygen therapy prevented telomere shortening and cellular senescence – hallmarks of cellular aging – in older adults, effectively reversing the aging process.

The study involved 35 older adults who underwent 60 hyperbaric oxygen therapy treatments over three months. Using blood samples the participants provided before, during, and after the intervention, researchers assessed the participants' immune cell telomere length and senescence.

They noted a 20 percent or greater increase in T helper, T cytotoxic, natural killer, and B cell telomere length following the hyperbaric treatments. B cell telomeres showed the greatest change, increasing as much as 52 percent post-treatment. B cells facilitate adaptive immunity – producing antibodies against bacterial, viral, and toxic exposures. The number of senescent T helper cells decreased by roughly 37 percent; senescent T cytotoxic cells decreased by 11 percent.

Telomeres are short, repetitive sequences of DNA located on the ends of chromosomes. They form a protective “cap” – a sort of disposable buffer that gradually shortens with age – that prevents chromosomes from losing genes or sticking to other chromosomes during cell division. When the telomeres on a cell’s chromosomes get too short, the cell stops dividing or dies. Learn more about telomeres in this episode featuring Dr. Elisa Epel.

Cellular senescence is the condition or process of deterioration that occurs with age. Cells that acquire enough damage can become senescent, rendering them metabolically inactive and unable to replicate. Senescent cells often release proinflammatory cytokines, driving the deterioration of neighboring healthy cells. Learn more about cellular senescence in this episode featuring Dr. Judith Campisi.

These findings suggest that hyperbaric oxygen therapy reverses some of the effects of aging in immune cells. However, this study was small and had no control group. Future research with larger groups may shed more light on the effectiveness of hyperbaric oxygen in slowing or reversing cellular aging.

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