Tuesday, September 17, 2013

New Study May Have Discovered Real Anti-Aging Approach

Last week, an  obese senior patient with multiple medical problems asked me in earnest if changing her lifestyle would actually make a difference to her health after all the damage her body had already incurred.  My response included that at a minimum, changing her eating habits, moving more, and managing stress better would slow, perhaps even stop certain further damage.  I was not so brazen to state that actions taken late in life would actually reverse years of neglect. Even though some recent studies have shown that lifestyle changes can reverse type 2 diabetes and improve heart and vascular health, nevertheless, no one knows precisely when someone crosses the line of no return (of course unless they pass). As one who follows the evidence, I refuse to give patients false hopes and perpetuate unverified information. But, I have some good news.

For some time it's been known that a poor lifestyle and stress in particular are linked to accelerated shortening of telomeres.  The telomere is the tail section of our chromosomes. Every time a cell divides, the telomere naturally shortens. After a certain number of cell divisions, the telomere reaches a certain length which results in either cell death (apoptosis) or cell shutdown (senescence.)  When enough cells stop functioning, so do we. It is believed by scientists that telomere shortening may be one of the major factors in our aging and ultimate demise. Stress has been linked to speeding up the process and scientists have yet to discover a mechanism to stop this shortening... until now.

A new study from the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) reveals something absolutely remarkable.  The study led by Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the Nobel prize for her work on telomeres, showed for the first time a connection between lifestyle and the actual lengthening of telomeres. It was a small study and it illustrated that those participants, all men, who embraced significant lifestyle change such as healthier eating which included low fat, low-carb meals, increased their physical activity, managed their stress better with meditation and other forms of relaxation, and improved their social contacts, actually saw a lengthening of their telomeres.  Aversely, the control group generally saw a decrease in telomere length.

Here is a quote from the study:

“Our findings are consistent with those of earlier studies, but to our knowledge this is the first study of any intervention that has shown a significant change in relative telomere length in human immune-system cells over time when compared with a non-intervention group. We noted a correlation between the degree of positive lifestyle change and increase in telomere length when all participants were assessed together, which supports the internal validity of this study. Although our sample size was small and all participants had early-stage cancer with low risk of metastasis, we believe large, randomized trials to test the validity and applicability of our results are warranted.”

The study, however, had a number of weaknesses, not the least of which it included a small sample size, it was not a randomized double-blind controlled study, it only included men with prostate cancer, and it had several variable lifestyle changes. Notwithstanding, the study holds out the tantalizing prospect that switching your lifestyle at any time can actually slow down or possibly even reverse aging.  There is much more research to be done, but the next time a patient asks me if it is possible to reverse years of damage, I will cite this study and future studies I'm hopeful will come that indicate that the answer may be yes.

In the interim, I don't know about you, but I will try to live a lifestyle linked to lengthening of telomeres and hope (and pray) for the best.


  1. Correction: You say the intervention group ate "low fat, low- carb meals". I was curious how this was possible, since that would imply very high protein. So I looked up the journal article. The article text actually reads: " low in fat (approximately 10% of calories) and refined carbohydrates", which would probably be a 70% - 80%, or high carb diet.

  2. I just reviewed the study as well and you are correct. Thank you for pointing out my error in not being specific enough. By low carb, I should have stated that I meant they limited refined or processed carbs.

  3. This reminded me of another study I just read that suggested that telemere shortening in muscle tissue might more inactivity related than simply an inevitable consequence of aging: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24708050

    Makes me wonder, re the USCF study, how much of the beneficial effect was due to increased exercise in the intervention group and how much was due to the other three lifestyle changes.

  4. The study you cite is an interesting study and consistent with why I used the word "may have" in my title. I believe that telomeres are more a marker than a causative agent of aging but the final chapter of their significance is far from written. That said, what I've learned from an exhaustive review of the literature is that different factors have different affects on different people. As recent studies suggest, when it comes to exercise there is a goldilocks effect, where you have to find the sweet spot for your body to get the optimal benefit. For others, it really is all about diet. So I don't think we can pinpoint with accuracy what absolutely adds years to everyone's life.