Healthy lifestyle changes such as eating whole foods and practising yoga could reverse the ageing of the body's cells, a study suggests. Patients who adopted healthy diets, exercise regimes and "stress management" techniques for five years developed chromosomes that appeared similar to those of a younger person.
The type of change seen in their chromosomes, the structures which house people's genetic codes, has previously been linked to a lower risk of age-related disease and greater life expectancy. The findings, from a pilot study of prostate cancer patients, could equally apply to women and healthy men but larger studies are needed to confirm the results, researchers said. They studied data on 35 patients who had a non-aggressive form of prostate cancer and had chosen to be regularly assessed by doctors rather than undergoing conventional treatment.
Ten of the men adopted a "lifestyle change intervention" programme, while the other 25 made no lifestyle changes. The intervention consisted of four parts. A diet adopted by the men was largely made up of unrefined and unprocessed foods. They were asked to do moderate exercise, such as 30-minute walks six times a week, managed stress through a number of techniques and attended a social support group. The scientists, from the University of California in the United States, examined changes in the men's telomeres, which are structures that sit at the ends of chromosomes.
Telomeres stop DNA within chromosomes from being damaged, but as people grow older they become shorter and cells start to age and die more rapidly. Previous studies have linked the shortening of telomeres to a decrease in life expectancy and a greater risk of age-related diseases such as heart disease, vascular dementia, obesity, stroke, diabetes and various cancers. The new research found that in the group which adopted the lifestyle changes, telomeres lengthened by an average of 10% over five years.
The more positive the changes that the men made, the greater the increase in their telomeres' lengths. Telomeres shortened in length by an average of 3 per cent among those who made no changes. It is known that a healthy diet and lots of exercise can result in several medical benefits, but the findings published in The Lancet Oncology journal are the first evidence of such an effect on telomeres.
Prof Dean Ornish, who led the study, said: "The implications of this relatively small pilot study may go beyond men with prostate cancer. "If validated by large-scale randomised controlled trials, these comprehensive lifestyle changes may significantly reduce the risk of a wide variety of diseases and premature mortality. "Our genes, and our telomeres, are a predisposition, but they are not necessarily our fate." Dr Lynne Cox, a biochemistry lecturer at the University of Oxford, said the findings supported "the calls for adoption of and adherence to healthier lifestyles". It is "perhaps too soon to judge whether this increase in telomere length will correlate with increased longevity or healthspan", she added.
What is a telomere?
Telomeres are structures made of DNA and protein that prevent damage to the genetic code in chromosomes by forming protective caps. They shorten as we age, meaning that the cells die more quickly. How is this affected by lifestyle? Research suggests that eating well, exercising regularly and lowering stress levels could cause telomeres to lengthen over time. In theory, this could extend lifespan and lower the risk of age-related diseases.
What constitutes a healthy lifestyle?
Participants in the study adopted a diet high in whole foods such as fruit, vegetables, pulses and grains, and low in fat and "bad" carbohydrates such as those found in white bread. They also exercised regularly, practised "stress management" techniques such as yoga and meditation, and attended weekly group support sessions led by a psychologist.