A very small pilot study offers early evidence that a program of comprehensive lifestyle changes increases telomere length. Telomeres, which have been compared to the plastic caps that prevent shoelaces from unravelling, help protect chromosomes. Telomere length is closely correlated to cellular aging: as we age the telomeres in our cells grow shorter. The new study, published online in Lancet Oncology, is one of the first studies to test whether the Nobel-prize winning research into telomeres has a role to play in assessing the health of humans in typical clinical situations.
The first author of the new paper is Dean Ornish, whose career has been devoted to demonstrating the benefits of a comprehensive lifestyle program consisting of radical changes in diet and exercise, accompanied by stress management and social support. The senior author of the paper is Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the Nobel Prize for her discovery of telomeres and their significance. In the paper Ornish and colleagues report on a long-term followup study in a small group of people with low-risk prostate cancer who agreed to follow Ornish’s rigorous program.
After 5 years telomere length increased in this group and decreased in a group of matched controls. Adherence to the lifestyle program varied among the participants, and some members of the control group made lifestyle changes on their own. The investigators reported that change in telomere length was significantly related to the degree of lifestyle change regardless of the study group. Further, as expected, telomere shortening was independently predicted by age, but the effect of the lifestyle program was independent of age and worked in the opposite direction.