The first evidence that lifestyle changes can reverse aging

A new five-year pilot study has shown that lifestyle changes, like an improved diet, exercise, and stress management, may help reverse aging processes at the cellular level. But as exciting as this finding is, we’re still far from the proverbial fountain of youth.

The study, which now appears in The Lancet Oncology, was conducted by a pair of heavy hitting scientists, namely Dean Ornish — who’s made a career of demonstrating the benefits of comprehensive lifestyle changes in diet, exercise, stress management, and social support — and Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the Nobel Prize for her discovery of telomeres and their relation to the aging process.

Frayed Ends

And indeed, a key assumption of the study pertains to telomere length — the part of the chromosome that affects cellular aging — and its relation to lifestyle factors. Telomeres appear at the end of chromosomes and provide protection. They’re often compared to how the tips of shoelaces prevent them from fraying. In similar manner, telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes and help them remain stable.

But telomeres get shorter as we age, a contributing factor to cellular aging and decay — a process that we experience as aging. The length of a person’s telomeres is typically determined by age; shorter lengths are associated with the onset of certain diseases, including cancer, heart disease, obesity, stroke, and diabetes.

Telomeres are not known for growing longer. But this is precisely what the University of California team has observed. And by virtue of this, they believe that they may have stumbled upon a technique that can literally reverse aging at the cellular level — albeit ever so slightly.

“A program of comprehensive lifestyle changes”

To do so, the team recruited a small group of volunteers — a group consisting of 35 men with prostate cancer. They put 10 men through a specific lifestyle routine, and set aside the other 25 as a control group. This is admittedly a small sample size, but keep in mind that this was just a pilot study. Moreover, the researchers have acknowledged the limitation, noting in the study that, “[l]arger randomised controlled trials are warranted to confirm this finding.”

Men in the intervention group followed a comprehensive program that involved significant lifestyle changes, including:

  • A diet high in plant-based protein, fruits, vegetables, unrefined grains and low in fat and refined carbohydrates
  • Moderate aerobic exercise for 30 minutes per day, six days per week
  • Stress management activities like yoga-based stretching and meditation
  • Attending weekly social support group sessions

The men in the control group had no such lifestyle change.

After five years, the researchers re-measured telomere length — and they were 10% longer for the men who followed the lifestyle changes. Control group participants, on the other hand, experienced a decrease, on average, of 3%. Telomere length was also correlated to adherence.

Not So Fast

This is actually quite amazing — and unprecedented. It shows that low-tech interventions can have a measurable impact on not just our overall health, but the rate at which we age. It will be interesting to see if future studies can replicate these results, and show a demonstrable improvement in health (indeed, only two of the 10 men showed any real improvement to their overall health, which is not great).

Unfortunately, however, the researchers — who are understandably excited by their findings — need to tone down the language. For example, in an interview with medical journalist Larry Husten, Ornish is quoted as saying:

The prospect of beginning to reverse aging on a cellular level is an important finding that may be of great interest to your readers who, I hope, will feel inspired and empowered by them. Our genes are not our fate. And now that I’ve just turned 60, it has personal meaning as well!

Again, given the limitations of the pilot study, the implications shouldn’t be overstated. Aging is an incredibly complex and dynamic process; telomere shortening is but one of many factors involved (Aubrey de Grey, for example, has isolated seven different mechanisms, but I suspect that there’s plenty more). What’s more, the link between telomere length and aging hasn’t been completely established.

And as Husten points out, the trial was not randomized, nor did the researchers isolate the variables responsible for telomere lengthening (e.g., was it the vegetarian diet, the meditation?).

But these grains of salt aside, let’s not get too down on the study. Lifestyle factors clearly play an important role in our health — perhaps more so than we ever realized.

Read the entire study at Lancet Oncology: “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.”

Image: Benjamin Button.