The study, published in the December 9th edition of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, is the first to investigate whether microbial exposures early in life affect inflammatory processes related to diseases in adulthood. Remarkably, the Northwestern study suggests exposure to infectious microbes in childhood may actually protect youngsters from developing serious illnesses, including cardiovascular diseases, when they grow into adults.
"Contrary to assumptions related to earlier studies, our research suggests that ultra-clean, ultra-hygienic environments early in life may contribute to higher levels of inflammation as an adult, which in turn increases risks for a wide range of diseases," Thomas McDade, lead author of the study, said in a statement to the media. McDade is associate professor of anthropology in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research.
He added that humans have only recently lived in super clean environments and it could well be time to put down the antibacterial soap. That's because the new research suggests that inflammatory systems need a reasonably high level of exposure to common everyday germs and other microbes to develop and work properly in the body.
"In other words, inflammatory networks may need the same type of microbial exposures early in life that have been part of the human environment for all of our evolutionary history to function optimally in adulthood," stated McDade.