Doctors have long puzzled over the purpose of the appendix: The pinkie-size organ at the end of the large intestine is seemingly useless, potentially troublesome, and often dismissed as vestigial. But recent research may have solved the mystery, finding that the appendix plays a key role in our health.
“The appendix is a sort of ‘safe house’ or reservoir of helpful gut bacteria for our microbiomes,” reports William Parker, PhD, director of the Duke University Medical Center Transplant Research Laboratory. The organ both cultivates and protects good bacteria that can repopulate the intestine.
It also plays a role in immune function. Studies have found lymphoid tissue in and around the appendix, which stimulates and supports the immune system’s response to invading pathogens, explains Heather F. Smith, PhD, director of Anatomical Laboratories at Midwestern University in Glendale, Ariz.
So what if a case of appendicitis forces an appendectomy? Living without an appendix can suppress the overall immune system slightly, Parker says. And studies have found that appendectomy patients suffer more than double the rate of colitis due to infection from Clostridium difficile (C. diff).
“Most of us without an appendix (including me) live relatively healthy lives,” Smith says. “There are many other lymphoid organs in the body, and other places that healthy bacteria can reside. Thus, while it may be beneficial to have an appendix, it is not crucial for survival.”
Ranking of acute appendicitis among
the most common general surgical emergencies
in the United States.
Percentage of people who develop appendicitis.
About 400,000 Americans suffer
from the condition annually.
Most common age range for people to
develop appendicitis — although it can occur
at any age. The incidence of appendicitis
peaks in the late teen years and gradually
declines as people age.
This originally appeared as “Mystery of the Appendix: Solved?” in the April 2019 print issue of Experience Life.