Lifestyle changes may, in fact, be able to turn back the clock on aging. A small pilot study has provided the first evidence that lifestyle changes can lengthen protective regions of our DNA called telomeres.
The study followed 35 men over the course of 5 years, all of whom had been diagnosed with low-risk prostate cancer. Ten of the men were assigned to undertake healthy lifestyle changes: a vegetarian whole-food diet, regular exercise and sessions of stress-reducing meditation or yoga. The others served as controls.
At the end of five years, researchers found the men who had adopted healthy habits had significantly “younger” DNA than when they began, in terms of telomere length. Telomeres are protective regions at the ends of chromosomes that help keep DNA intact. And shortening of telomeres is closely linked to aging and diseases of old age, explained study author Dean Ornish to LiveScience:
“A number of studies have shown that as telomeres get shorter, the risk of premature death and most chronic disease, from heart disease to cancer, even dementia goes up,” said study researcher Dr. Dean Ornish, clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.“So as our telomeres get shorter, in a sense, our lives get shorter,” Ornish said. “This is the first study showing that lifestyle changes may actually increase the length of telomeres.”
The 10 men who made lifestyle changes grew their telomeres by an average of 10% over the course of the study, and the more positive changes they made the more growth they saw. In contrast, telomeres of men in the control group shrunk by an average of 3%. The findings are reported today in The Lancet Oncology.
The small size of the study means that conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt. Tom Vulliamy, senior lecturer in Molecular Biology at Queen Mary University of London, told BBC News:
“It is really important to highlight that this is a small pilot study… 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.”