Scientists have made important gains in recent years in understanding the aging process. One important key appears to be telomeres, or more specifically, telomere length. These are stretches of DNA that sit at the end of chromosomes and protect genetic data, making it possible for cells to divide. They are like the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces. Just like those tips prevent shoelaces from fraying, telomeres do the same for chromosomes, preventing damage that would scramble genetic information in ways that may raise risk for chronic disease.
Over time, telomeres become shorter. When they are no longer present to protect the chromosomes, the cells that house the chromosomes become inactive or die.
It’s easy to see why longer telomeres have been found to translate to a longer and healthier life. Factors that may reduce their length include aging, stress, smoking and the metabolic syndrome.
A just-published study shows for the first time that lifestyle can actually increase telomere length. This study involved men with a non-aggressive form of prostate cancer. Twenty-five men served as the control group, making no changes to their lifestyle. Ten men were enrolled in a program of comprehensive lifestyle changes that included a low-fat (10% of calories from fat), whole foods, plant-based diet, plus 60 minutes per day of stress management (gentle yoga-based stretching, breathing, meditation, imagery, and progressive relaxation), moderate aerobic exercise (walking 30 minutes per day for 6 days per week), and a one-hour group support session per week. The diet was supplemented with one daily serving of tofu plus 58 grams of a fortified soy protein powdered beverage, fish oil, vitamin E, selenium, and vitamin C.
At the end of 5 years, as expected, telomere length decreased in the control group. In contrast, telomere length increased in the men engaged in the lifestyle program. The difference between the two groups was statistically significant, indicating that the findings were unlikely to have occurred by chance. What is remarkable about these results is that telomere length actually increased in the intervention group, it just didn’t shorten less than in the control group. Furthermore, the more the men adhered to the lifestyle program, the longer was the telomere length. The authors of this research called for larger studies involving a variety of different population groups to be conducted.
While the design of this study doesn’t allow conclusions to be made about the contribution of any specific component of the lifestyle program, it is notable that soyfoods provided the bulk of the protein in the diet.
Ornish D, Lin J, Chan JM, et al. 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 Oncol 2013.