Healthy Diet, Exercise Protect Telomeres, the Body's Guard Against Aging

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Looking for the fountain of youth? Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco may have found the mother lode in the form of telomeres. The catch is that you’re going to have to really embrace a healthy lifestyle – including diet and regular exercise -- in order to protect these powerhouses so you don’t age quickly.

    So what are telomeres? The UCSF website describes them as “protective caps at the ends of our chromosomes that are similar to the plastic caps at the ends of a shoelace. As the plastic ends shred, and the shoelace becomes frayed and damaged, so too the shortening of our telomeres can leave our cells vulnerable to damage.”

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    Telomere length, which is considered an index of a cell’s age, has been found to be associated with some chronic diseases and mortality. UCSF points to 20 studies have found links between shorter length of the telomeres and cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, cognitive function, dementia and arthritis.  Furthermore, researchers are finding that people who have shorter telomeres on their immune cells tend to die earlier. Long telomeres, on the other hand, are associated with healthy aging and overall longevity.

    What I find really interesting is that we can actually grow our telomeres by engaging in a healthy lifestyle, even if we haven’t followed one previously. For instance, a small longitudinal study involving 35 men who had been diagnosed with low-risk prostate cancer looked at this phenomenon. Ten men were assigned to a group that was asked to make changes in order to lead a healthy lifestyle. These changes included a vegetarian whole-food diet, regular exercise, stress reduction through meditation or yoga, and social support. The other men in the study served as the control group and only had active surveillance from the researchers.

    At the end of the study’s five-year period, the researchers analyzed the blood samples in order to compare relative telomere length and activity. The scientists also looked at the relation of the telomere length based on the degree of lifestyle changes. They found that the 10 men who embraced a healthy lifestyle had significantly longer DNA than when they began the research project. In fact, the analysis determined that the telomeres in the men who improved their lifestyle increased by an average of 10 percent during the study. The researchers also found that the more positive changes the men made, the more their telomeres grew.

    UCSF’s website points out that people with highly stressed lives can protect their telomeres through doing physical activity consistently. Yoga, low-fat diet and increased physical activity were found to increase telomerase, an enzyme that protects the length of telomeres.

    “So often people think ‘Oh, I have bad genes, there’s nothing I can do about it,’” said Dr. Dean Ornish, a clinical professor medicine at UCSF, founder and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, and the study’s lead author. “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.”

  • The UCSF researchers recommend, based on analysis of the research conducted thus far, that people should incorporate the following changes into their lives in order to maintain or lengthen telomeres:

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    • Increase the amount of vigorous exercise you do to at least 4-5 times a week. Activities can include going to a gym, cycling, jogging, going for a brisk walk, or doing yoga. Try to focus on doing activities that increase your heart rate or make your body sweat.
    • Improving your diet so that it is more nutritious. Your diet should be low-fat (less than 10 percent of total calories) with a focus on whole foods, plant-based protein, fruits and vegetables.  Limited your intake of red and processed meat (such as bacon, hot dogs and sausages). Also take vitamins to ensure you’re getting all of the necessary nutrients.
    • Lose extra weight if you’re overweight.
    • Reduce psychological stress and depression levels in order to enhance your well-being.

    Primary Resources for This Sharepost:

    Fernandez, E. (2013). Lifestyle changes may lengthen telomeres, a measure of cell aging. University of California, San Francisco.

    University of California, San Francisco. (nd). What are telomeres?

Published On: September 30, 2013