Can A Healthy Lifestyle Reverse Aging? Yes!

Telomere (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wow. A program of healthy eating, exercise, and stress reduction can not only reverse some diseases – it may slow down the aging process as well. This headline certainly got this 50-year-old’s attention.

How: Lifestyle changes can affect the telomeres – little brush-like caps on the end of the chromosomes that carry your DNA. A team from the University of California, San Francisco just published a small series, based on men with prostate cancer. The research showed that men who switched to a vegan diet, added exercise, and stress reduction had longer telomeres. Drs. Ornish and Blackburn led a team that examined 10 patients with prostate cancer (who had no traditional treatment).

The program includes eating a diet high in whole foods, fruits, vegetables, unrefined grains, and keeping fat to 10% of calories. The men also exercised, walking at least 30 minutes a day, 6 days per week. They did yoga-based stretching end breathing exercises, practiced relaxation techniques, and had weekly one-hour stress-reduction group sessions. And they gave blood samples. About 85-95% of patients were compliant with the program.

Wow: This is the first study showing that an intervention (of any type) can reduce cellular aging. Telomerase levels increased by 30% in just 3 months. Telomerase is an enzyme that affects telomeres. They also looked at gene activity: Of 500 genes that changed, in every case it was in a beneficial way. Five years later, they drew more blood. The telomeres were an average of 10% longer. Of 25 men who did not follow the program, the telomeres were 3% shorter than average.

My Take: Dr. Ornish’s diet has been shown to reverse heart disease, diabetes, and may help keep early prostate cancer in check. Even if you or I can’t do everything the study participants did, we all can aim in that direction. I’m Dr. Michael Hunter, and I am excited to share the good news with you!

There are many problems with the study:

This was not a randomized trial. Patients in the treatment group agreed to intense and highly demanding lifestyle changes. They were compared with a group who had similar risk factors but who clearly did not share their high level of motivation. There is no way to know what other important differences might exist between the two groups.

This was a very small trial. The original 2008 trial enrolled 30 patients– there were no controls– and 24 patients had sufficient blood samples to assess telomerase activity. In the new report only 10 patients had adequate blood samples available for analysis. This limits the generalizability of the study.

What caused the changes (if there were changes)? The Ornish program is contains several interventions, including drastic reductions in dietary fat and sugar, significant increases in exercise , as well as yoga classes and group therapy. There is no way to know the relative importance, of any of the individual elements of his program.

Do we have to go vegetarian or super low fat? (I doubt it) It is entirely possible that other healthy interventions might similarly change telomere length favorably. Might a Japanese diet? Mediterranean diet? South Beach diet? And what about vigorous regular exercise (here, we have Canadian data linking it to telomere stabilization, as I recall). It is entirely possible that other, completely different interventions would have a similar effect.

Might other factors lengthen life? We know a big indicator of length of life among men over the last 100 years has been work. Keep working…

So, no. I am not foolish enough to believe that a 10 person trial proves anything. (Although it can be helpful: Hodgkin’s original observation in the 1830s of adenopathy had only a dozen or so patients included, pointed the way to some of the most extraordinary progress in the cancer business ever.) . Prospective, randomized trials will need to be conducted to provide high level evidence, and the authors make this very clear in their conclusions. For now, however, we have one more brick in the wall… As for me, I’ll stick to healthy living (hopefully with a few more fruits!). And choosing my parents well (Go mom: pushing 80 and still walking 4 miles daily, and close to her weight from 40 years ago; Go dad: pushing 85, and not a single significant health problem. Still not as good as my in-laws, who all lived 94-102 years, seemingly healthy ’til the very end).

That’s my 2 cents.

Want to Try It? The men on the study followed a program advocated by Dr. Dean Ornish, an expert who has long been an advocate of very low-fat, vegetarian diet in improving health. Dr. Ornish worked with the telomere expert (and 2009 Nobel Prize winner) Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn.

The small print: The material presented herein is informational only, and is not designed to provide specific guidance for an individual. Please check with a valued health care provider with any questions or concerns. As for me, I am a Harvard- , Yale- and UPenn-educated radiation oncologist, and I practice in the Seattle, WA (USA) area. I feel genuinely privileged to be able to share with you. If you enjoyed today’s offering, please consider clicking the follow button at the bottom of this page.

Available now: Understand Colon Cancer in 60 Minutes; Understand Brain Glioma in 60 Minutes. Both can be found at the Apple Ibooks store. Coming Soon for iPad:  Understand Breast Cancer in 60 Minutes; Understand Colon Cancer in 60 Minuteable now: Understand Colon Cancer in 60 Minutes; Understand Brain Glioma in 60 Minutes. Thank you.

Reference: Lancet Oncology, 2013

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Harvard AB Yale MD UPenn Radiation Oncology Radiation Oncologist, Seattle area

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