The pancreas primarily functions as an exocrine and endocrine gland. It supports digestion by excreting digestive enzymes into the small intestines to break down nutrients along with bicarbonate to neutralize acidity from the stomach. It also releases systemic hormones, including insulin, glucagon, somatostatin, and pancreatic polypeptide. Insulin is of particular importance as it maintains blood glucose levels, therefore regulating the energy available to cells. Interestingly, unlike many other vital organs, it is possible to survive without a pancreas with the help of modern medicine. Patients can take digestive enzymes with their meals and inject insulin in order to compensate.
Type 1 diabetes, most commonly diagnosed between ages 4 and 14, is an autoimmune disease that attacks beta cells, which release insulin. Gallstones and chronic alcohol use can cause pancreatitis, an inflammatory disease occurring in the pancreas. Pancreatic tissue, like most of the tissues in the body, also significantly declines with age. Pancreatic cancer is very rare among the young (71 years of age for median diagnosis) and has one of the worst prognoses among cancers. It is rarely detected early due to a lack of symptoms and biomarkers. Type 2 diabetes is marked by the inability to properly regulate blood glucose levels, which is caused by the decreased ability of pancreatic beta cells to secrete insulin as the rest of the body’s cells experience insulin resistance. Type 2 diabetes is of particular interest to the aging field, as it is an age-related disease that accelerates aging pathways.