Simple lifestyle changes—like eating right, exercising more, and dealing with stress—could reverse the effects of aging on your cells.
In a small study, a team of researchers at the University of California led by Dean Ornish, MD, found that these good habits may work their benefits by slowing down or reversing the shortening of chromosomes that occurs as we age.
While the results are promising, and in line with similar research, the size of the study has led some experts to caution that it’s too early to make any final conclusions.
Protective Genetic Caps
The study, which was published online Sept. 17 in the journal Lancet, looked at 35 men with low-risk prostate cancer. Those who participated in lifestyle interventions had genetically younger cells after four to five years.
Researchers found visible genetic changes in the 10 men who switched to a plant-based diet, followed recommended guidelines for exercise and yoga-based stress reduction, and received extra social support.
These changes involved the telomeres—protective caps on the ends of the chromosomes that contain our genes. Scientists believe the telomeres enhance the stability of the chromosomes.
Each time our cells divide, the telomeres shorten. This can be used as an indicator of the genetic “age” of the cell.
Their length may also indicate the risk of disease or premature death. In previous research, telomere length has been linked to age-related diseases like cancer and stroke, nutrition, smoking, psychological stress, and exercise.
Lifestyle Changes and Cells
In men who made positive lifestyle changes throughout the study, telomere length increased 10 percent on average.
In contrast, telomere length decreased by 3 percent in men who were not asked to change their lifestyle habits.
Although this is the first study to show a link between a specific lifestyle intervention and telomere length, more work is needed to clarify the connection between telomere length and overall health and lifespan.
“These results add to existing data and suggest that further investigation in randomised trials in larger and different populations would be useful,” the researchers say in their paper.
Other researchers agree.
“It is really important to highlight that this is a small pilot study,” Dr Tom Vulliamy, senior lecturer in Molecular Biology at Queen Mary University of London tells BBC News. “Given this, I’m definitely going to wait to see whether this can be replicated on a larger scale and with more sizeable effects before I get excited.”
References: Ornish D, Lin J, Chan JM, Epel E, Kemp C, Weidner G, Marlin R, Frenda SJ, Magbanua MJM, Daubenmier J, Estay I, Hills NK, Chainani-Wu N, Carroll PR, & Blackburn EH (2013). Effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes on telomerase activity and telomere length in men with biopsy-proven low-risk prostate cancer: 5-year follow-up of a descriptive pilot study Lancet DOI: 10.1016/S1470-2045(13)70366-8
Photo: Candy model of DNA by Austin Children’s Museum
Originally published on The Health Journal