How you live may be more influential than genes in determining lifespan and health

Telomeres, the part of chromosomes that affects aging, has been used by the media a lot recently. Its popularity will continue to grow thanks to a research study by the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) and the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute. An article on UCSF’s website reports that lifestyle changes may result in longer telomeres.

The findings are a life changer

According to the UCSF article, this was the first controlled study to indicate that intervention—in this case, changes in diet, exercise, stress management and social support—has the potential to lengthen telomeres over time.

Why is this important? The DNA and protein in telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes. As telomeres become shorter, the cells age and die faster. Shorter telomeres are associated with aging-related illnesses, including cancer, stroke, some forms of dementia, heart disease, obesity, osteoporosis and diabetes.

“So often people think ‘Oh, I have bad genes, there’s nothing I can do about it,’” the study’s lead author, Dean Ornish, UCSF clinical professor of medicine, said. “But these findings indicate that telomeres may lengthen to the degree that people change how they live. Research indicates that longer telomeres are associated with fewer illnesses and longer life.”

While additional studies are already being pursued, the early findings are enough to make our hearts flutter with excitement. After all, who among us wouldn’t like to extend our life and enhance our enjoyment of it?

Research methods and results

Researchers followed 35 men with early-stage prostate cancer over five years to determine if comprehensive lifestyle changes could affect telomeres. The patients were closely monitored through screenings and biopsies.

Ten of the patients underwent the following changes:

  • Plant-based diet high in fruits, vegetables and unrefined grains, and low in fat and refined carbohydrates
  • Moderate exercise (walking 30 minutes a day, six days a week)
  • Stress reduction (yoga-based stretching, breathing, meditation)
  • Weekly group support that included moderate exercise, stress management training, and counseling

The remaining 25 study participants did not make lifestyle changes. By the end of the study, the patients who made lifestyle changes showed a “significant” increase in telomere length of 10 percent. In comparison, telomeres of men in the control group had shortened by three percent at the end of the study.

Interpreting the findings

Researchers believe their study results can be applied beyond men with prostate cancer to the general population. That’s because they looked at telomeres in patients’ blood rather than their prostate tissue.

Peter R. Carroll, professor and chair of the UCSF Department of Urology and co-senior author of the study, said their findings, although groundbreaking, need to be confirmed with larger studies.

“Telomere shortening increases the risk of a wide variety of chronic diseases,” Carroll said. “We believe that increases in telomere length may help to prevent these conditions and perhaps even lengthen lifespan.”

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