Reduced thymic output in elite athletes

Athletes undergoing intensive training schedules have chronic exposure to stress-induced hormones such as cortisol that can depress immune function. We compared the circulating levels of T cell receptor excision circles (TREC), a marker of recent thymic emigrants, as well as the levels of naïve and memory subsets in a group of elite endurance athletes and in controls. The athletes showed a reduction in absolute numbers of naïve T cells, particularly in CD4 T cells. In contrast, memory cells were increased. TREC levels in the athletes were significantly reduced compared to age-matched controls. Such changes resemble premature ageing of the T cell component of the immune system. Since thymic production of T cells naturally decline with age, these results raise the concern that prolonging high intensity exercise into the 4th decade of life may have deleterious consequences for athletes' health. © 2014 Elsevier Inc.