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Lengthening Telomeres - and Lifespans

By Michael J. Gertner

When we eat right, exercise and receive emotional support, even our chromosomes look younger.   

The protective benefits of a healthy lifestyle don't just lower cholesterol or blood pressure, or provide more vitamins and minerals; they even protect the chromosomes deep within our cells.

Telomeres are like the plastic tips on shoelaces, but on your chromosomes. They are DNA-protein complexes that protect the ends of these strings of genes in the heart of every cell. They enable cells to keep dividing and you thriving.

The telomeres also serve as a measure of cell aging. They grow shorter as we age.

Environmental influences also affect telomere length for better and for worse. Chronic stress and smoking tend to shorten them. People who eat diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids have longer telomeres.
So, could a person actually lengthen his or her telomeres and reduce a cell's aging? The idea has obvious appeal. But it had never been tested.

Until now.

Healthy Lifestyle Changes Lengthen Telomeres

Dr. Dean Ornish has shown that heart disease can be not only prevented but reversed by rigorous changes in diet, exercise and stress reduction. Now he and his colleagues at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute and the University of California, San Francisco, have found that telomere shortening can also be reversed.

The team completed a pilot study with two groups of men diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer. None of the men had undergone any conventional treatments like surgery or radiation.

One group was asked to make and maintain a pretty comprehensive set of lifestyle changes. They ate whole, unprocessed, foods, a low-fat, plant-based diet, exercised moderately, and used stress management techniques such as meditation and yoga. They also spent time with friends and family and took part in weekly groups to increase intimacy and social support.

The lifestyles of the men in the other group stayed the same.

The researchers measured the subjects’ telomere length at the beginning of the study and five years after the lifestyle changes.

Telomere length increased significantly — by an average of 10% — in subjects who changed their lifestyles. In contrast, telomere length decreased by an average of 3% in the control group.

Though small, the study is the first to follow the beneficial effects that lifestyle changes have on telomeres over time. The increase in telomere length was directly related to the extent to which lifestyle changes were made. The more positive changes to their lifestyle the subjects made, the more the telomeres increased.

Not only do the findings suggest that genes are not destiny in every case, they bode well for humans interested in living longer. Studies in animals have shown that reversing the shortening of telomeres has a direct effect on reversing the aging process as well.

Even though many scientists are not yet claiming that this discovery is the key to the so-called “fountain of youth,” they do see it as an example of how environmental changes can affect genetic information that was once thought to be “hard-wired” to a person’s makeup.

“If validated by large-scale randomized controlled trials, these comprehensive lifestyle changes may significantly reduce the risk of a wide variety of diseases and premature mortality,” said Ornish, president and founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute. “Our genes, and our telomeres, are a predisposition, but they are not necessarily our fate.”

This study is published in the journal Lancet Oncology.
September 24, 2013

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