17 Sep 2013

Scientists show healthy life can reverse cell ageing

A small study shows for the first time that eating healthily, doing yoga and hanging out with friends does not just slow the ageing process – it may actually reverse it on a cellular level.

Healthy lifestyle choices can reverse ageing process, scientists find (Getty)

It is hardly breaking news to suggest that living healthily can help you live longer. But now a small pilot study of men with prostate cancer, published in the Lancet, has suggested for the first time that making positive lifestyle changes may have the potential to not just delay ageing – but reverse it altogether.

The study says that making changes such as eating a whole foods plant-based diet and doing moderate exercise can lengthen “telomeres”, the ends of chromosomes which are involved with cell ageing.

Our genes are a predisposition, but they are not necessarily our fate. Professor Dean Ornish

Professor Dean Ornish, the study’s author, said: “The implications of this relatively small pilot study may go beyond men with prostate cancer. If validated by large-scale randomised controlled trials, these comprehensive lifestyle changes may significantly reduce the risk of a wide variety of diseases and premature mortality.

“Our genes, and our telomeres, are a predisposition, but they are not necessarily our fate.”

Telomeres are DNA protein complexes at the end of chromosomes in cells in the human body. They act as protective caps for chromosomes, like plastic guards on a shoelace.

Short telomeres are associated with premature ageing and diseases of ageing. Telomeres shorten as you get older, because they shorten every time a cell divides, and can effectively act as a biological clock because of this. The shortening is like a biological fuse burning until it runs out and telomeres become too short to protect the chromosome.

Another analogy for telomeres is like a train engine laying down fresh track behind it as it goes. When the engine reaches the end of the line, where the engine sits will have no new track put down. So each time the train moves up and down the line the track gets shorter. This is like the cell dividing. Each division leads to shorter telomeres.

Who wants to live forever?

In the new study, undertaken by Professor Ornish and colleagues at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute and the University of California, scientists compared two small groups of men with low-risk prostate cancer who had not had any conventional treatments. The study group of 10 men was asked to make lifestyle changes such as eating more healthily, whereas a control group was not.

The men who made the changes – including adopting a whole foods plant-based diet, taking moderate exercise, using stress management techniques such as meditation and yoga and seeking greater intimacy and social support – saw their telomere length increase significantly after five years, by 10 per cent. In the control group, telomere length decreased by 3 per cent.

Read more from Channel 4 News on ageing

While studies in the past have shown that living better can have many medical benefits, such as reversing the progression of heart disease, no research has ever before shown that lifestyle changes may have a beneficial effect on telomeres in this way.

There are a number of implications for the research, not least that men such as Ray Kurzweil could be right. He is the famous US inventor who wants to live forever and is taking some serious steps, including taking 150 pills and supplements a day, to make sure he lives long enough to see the benefits when someone (possibly him, based on his track record) cracks immortality.

‘More fuel in the tank’

Dr Paul Shiels, a biological ageing expert at the University of Glasgow, told Channel 4 News it was an important study.

“This reinforces the fact that [with healthy lifestyle changes] you can slow down the rate at which you put miles on the clock. What this study is saying is that potentially you can add more miles on – put more fuel in your tank.

“That is surprising – the degree of change is small but positive, and that is counter-intuitive. I would have expected that you would slow the rate of ageing rather than reverse ageing itself,” he said.

He pointed out that, as the study’s authors acknowledge, more work needs to be done on this area before people get carried away, including much larger studies on healthy populations. But he described it as an “exciting” piece of work.

“There are other factors, like social deprivation. Where I work in Glasgow, one area of the city has some of the best life expectancies in the world. People live to their mid-80s. Fifteen miles away, there are people who live 54 years. Those people could clearly benefit from better diets, lifestyles, stress management and social circles,” he said.

“This is not going to make you live forever – not to 150 or 120 years – this is helping guys who would otherwise be going downhill more quickly and it is a lovely way to do it. This is a positive message we have been trying to get out for years – a no-brainer. Manage your stress, be physically active, have a good diet and social network: that’s good.”