The Thymus and Adult Health

The Thymus and Adult Health

New research shows a connection between the thymus and adult health. When I was a child in the early 1940s, doctors performed surgeries on children to remove a gland or organ because they thought it was vestigial and no longer needed. By the time I was in high school, my tonsils, adenoids, and appendix had all been removed. When my daughter Wendy became a teenager, she had repeated throat issues and infections. Her doctor refused to remove her tonsils or adenoids even though they were infected and hurting her repeatedly.

We know now that the tonsils and adenoids are an important part of the lymphatic system, keeping our bodies healthy by trapping harmful bacteria and viruses. As we have come to understand the immune system in humans, we have found that surgically removing the tonsils and adenoids can open us to infections. New research indicates the same is true of the thymus.

The thymus is a gland in the chest between the lungs, in front of and above the heart. It produces immune cells called T cells that protect against foreign invaders that could cause illness. In children, the thymus is very active, but after puberty, it shrinks. By then, the body has memory T cells specialized in attacking intruders the body has fought before. Since the thymus gradually becomes smaller, it is frequently removed in heart operations because it gets in the way.

Oncologist David Scadden and colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston researched the thymus and adult health. They examined the health outcomes of 1,146 patients who had their thymus removed at the hospital between 1993 and 2020. They compared those with an equal number of patients who had the same surgeries but did not have their thymus removed. The death rate for those whose thymus was removed was three times higher than those who did not. Thymus removal was also associated with two times the risk of cancer within five years.

The thymus serves a purpose in childhood but may play a different role in adulthood. The researchers don’t know the cause of these striking numbers, but they show a strong connection between the thymus and adult health. We now know that the appendix, tonsils, and adenoids contribute to the body’s immune system to help keep us healthy. It appears that we should add the thymus to that list.

Psalms 139:14 says, “I will praise you, God, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are your works..” We don’t have to look far to see God’s wisdom and design in creation. Just look in the mirror.

— John N. Clayton © 2023

References: Science News for August 26, 2023, and New England Journal of Medicine