Eat well, exercise and nourish your mind. These positive lifestyle attributes have been linked time and again to better health. Would you change your ways and skip the fries or hit the gym if you knew that altering your lifestyle could not only slow, but actually reverse the aging of your cells? For the first time, researchers have produced preliminary evidence that this could be the case.
The study, published in the journal The Lancet Oncology, shows that healthy lifestyle changes can have an impact on aging and age-related diseases at a cellular level, by increasing the length of telomeres. Telomeres are the “caps” that protect the ends of chromosomes from DNA damage, similar to how shoelaces have plastic caps to stop them from fraying.
Shorter telomeres have been linked in previous research with cell aging and increased risks of age-related diseases like cancer and dementia, as well as premature death.
“Shortened telomeres have been shown to play a role in heart disease, colon cancer, stroke, dementia, and premature death,” said study leader Dr. Dean Ornish, UCSF clinical professor of medicine and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute. “But our study is the first to show that any intervention could lengthen telomeres.”
Researchers at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute and the University of California, San Francisco studied 35 men in their 50s and 60s, 10 of whom were asked to make lifestyle changes structured around a whole-food, plant-based diet, moderate daily exercise, yoga-based relaxation and stress management. The other 25 men were not asked to make any lifestyle changes at all.
Results showed that the 10 participants who adopted the healthy lifestyle changes for five years experienced a 10 percent lengthening of their cell’s telomeres. The 25 men in the control group had a 3 percent shortening of their cell’s telomeres over five years, which is typical during that aging time frame. They also found that the amount telomeres lengthened was linked with the degree to which the men implemented the healthy lifestyle changes, with those making more changes experiencing greater lengthening of their telomeres.
“It’s a small study, but it’s big science,” said Dr. David Katz, a prevention medicine specialist at Yale University’s Prevention Research Center who was not involved in the study. “The message we’re getting from this and other studies is consistent: We don’t have the medical capacity to tweak genes and make chronic diseases go away, but we can refashion our fate at the level of our DNA by the behavior choices we make.”