Telomere length, long taken as a measure of cell aging, was once thought a matter of fate, something beyond an individual’s control. But results published yesterday in The Lancet Oncology suggest otherwise. Changes in diet, exercise, stress management, and social support may result in longer telomeres—and possibly healthier, longer lives.

These results emerged from a small pilot study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and the Preventative Medicine Research Institute (PMRI). For five years, the researchers followed 35 men with localized, early-stage prostate cancer to explore the relationship between comprehensive lifestyle changes, and telomere length and telomerase activity. All the men were engaged in active surveillance, which involves closely monitoring a patient’s condition through screening and biopsies. Ten of the patients embarked on lifestyle changes. They were compared to the other 25 study participants who were not asked to change their lifestyle.

The group that made the lifestyle changes experienced an increase in telomere length of about 10%. Further, the more people changed their behavior by adhering to the recommended lifestyle program, the more dramatic their improvements in telomere length. By contrast, the men in the control group had measurably shorter telomeres—nearly 3% shorter—when the five-year study ended. (These effects were adjusted to account for age and the length of follow-up.)

The paper, “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,” follows up a similar three-month pilot investigation in 2008 in which the same participants were asked to follow the same lifestyle program. The men in the initial study exhibited significantly increased telomerase activity in immune-system cells.

A senior author of both studies, Dean Ornish, M.D., USCF clinical professor of medicine and founder and president of PMRI, said, “So often people think ‘Oh, I have bad genes, there’s nothing I can do about it. 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.”

Although the study looked at men with prostate cancer, the study’s results may have implications beyond this malady, which would be significant, since shorter telomeres have become associated with a broad range of aging-related diseases, including many forms of cancer, stroke, vascular dementia, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis, and diabetes.

“We looked at telomeres in the participants’ blood, not their prostate tissue,” said Dr. Ornish. Similarly, the 2008 study evaluated peripheral blood mononuclear cells.

The possibility that the researchers’ findings are relevant to the general population was also considered by another senior author of both studies, Peter R. Carroll, M.D., professor and chair of the UCSF department of urology. Dr. Carroll added, “Telomere shortening increases the risk of a wide variety of chronic diseases. We believe that increases in telomere length may help to prevent these conditions and perhaps even lengthen lifespan.”

The authors advocate larger randomized controlled trials to confirm their findings.

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