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Diet, Meditation, Exercise Can Improve Key Element of Immune Cell Aging, UCSF Scientists Report

Changes May Lengthen Telomeres, A Measure of Cell Aging

Meditation, Exercise Can Improve Key Element of Immune Cell Aging,
UCSF Scientists Report

By Elizabeth
on September 16, 2013

A small pilot study shows for the first time that changes in diet,
exercise, stress management and social support may result in longer
telomeres, the parts of chromosomes that affect aging.

It is the first controlled trial to show that any intervention
might lengthen telomeres over time.

The study will be published online on Sept. 16 in The
Lancet Oncology


The study was conducted by scientists at UC San Francisco and the
Preventive Medicine Research
, a nonprofit public research institute in Sausalito,
Calif. that investigates the effect of diet and lifestyle choices on
health and disease. The researchers say they hope the results will
inspire larger trials to test the validity of the findings. 

“Our genes, and our telomeres, are not necessarily our
fate,” said lead author Dean
, MD, UCSF clinical professor of medicine, and founder and
president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute.

“So often people think ‘Oh, I have bad genes, there’s
nothing I can do about it,’” Ornish said. “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.”

Study of Early-Stage Prostate Cancer Patients

Telomeres are the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that
affect how quickly cells age. They are combinations of DNA and
protein that protect the ends of chromosomes and help them remain
stable. As they become shorter, and as their structural integrity
weakens, the cells age and die quicker.

In recent years, 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.

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 that included: a
plant-based diet (high in fruits, vegetables and unrefined grains,
and low in fat and refined carbohydrates); moderate exercise (walking
30 minutes a day, six days a week); stress reduction (gentle
yoga-based stretching, breathing, meditation). They also participated
in weekly group support.  

They were compared to the other 25 study participants who were not
asked to make major lifestyle changes.

The group that made the lifestyle changes experienced a
“significant” increase in telomere length of
approximately 10 percent. Further, the more people changed their
behavior by adhering to the recommended lifestyle program, the more
dramatic their improvements in telomere length, the scientists

By contrast, the men in the control group who were not asked to
alter their lifestyle had measurably shorter telomeres – nearly
3 percent shorter – when the five-year study ended. Telomere
length usually decreases over time.

Possibilities for General Population

The researchers say the findings may not be limited to men with
prostate cancer, and are likely to be relevant to the general

“We looked at telomeres in the participants’ blood,
not their prostate tissue,” said Ornish.

The new study is a follow up to a similar, three-month pilot
investigation in 2008 in which the same participants were asked to
follow the same lifestyle program. After three months, the men in the
initial study exhibited significantly increased telomerase activity.
Telomerase is an enzyme that repairs and lengthens telomeres.   

The new study was designed to determine if the lifestyle changes
would affect telomere length and telomerase activity in these men
over a longer time period.
was a breakthrough finding that needs to be confirmed by larger
studies,” said co-senior author Peter
R. Carroll
, MD, MPH, professor and chair of the UCSF Department
of Urology.

“Telomere shortening increases the risk of a wide variety of
chronic diseases,” Carroll said. “We believe that
increases in telomere length may help to prevent these conditions and
perhaps even lengthen lifespan.”

Other co-authors from UCSF include senior author and Nobel
laureate Elizabeth
H. Blackburn
, PhD, professor of biochemistry and biophysics; Jue
Lin, PhD, associate research biochemist; June
M. Chan
, DSc, associate professor of epidemiology &
biostatistics; Elissa
, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry; Mark Jesus M.
Magbanua, associate specialist; Jennifer
and Nancy
K. Hills
, PhD, associate adjunct professors; and Nita
, DMD, MPH, PhD, assistant clinical professor.  

The research was supported by the U.S.
Department of Defense
; the National
Institute of Health
and National
Cancer Institute
grant number RO1 R01CA101042;  Furlotti
Family Foundation; Bahna Foundation; DeJoria Foundation; Walton
Family Foundation; Resnick Foundation; Greenbaum Foundation; Natwin
Foundation; Safeway Foundation; and the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

Jue Lin, Elissa Epel and Elizabeth Blackburn were co-founders of
Telome Health Inc., a diagnostic company that assess telomere biology
– THI had no relationship to this study. Dean Ornish works with
Healthways, Inc. to educate and support people in making healthier
behaviors. The other authors declared no conflicts of interest.

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health
worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level
education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence
in patient care. It includes top-ranked graduate schools of
dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy, a graduate division with
nationally renowned programs in basic biomedical, translational and
population sciences, as well as a preeminent biomedical research
enterprise and two top-ranked hospitals, UCSF Medical Center and UCSF
Benioff Children’s Hospital.

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