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By Deborah Kotz
How motivated would you be to forgo the cheesecake, practice relaxation techniques, and hit the gym if you knew that altering your lifestyle could not only slow, but actually reverse the aging of your cells? For the first time, researchers have produced preliminary evidence that this could be the case.

In a small study involving 35 men in their 50s and 60s, researchers at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute and the University of California, San Francisco, found that the 10 participants who adopted several healthful lifestyle changes for five years experienced a 10 percent lengthening of their cell’s telomeres, indicating that the cells would have a longer lifespan. Telomeres are the protective ends of chromosomes that protect against DNA damage — analogous to how the plastic tips on the end of shoelaces keep those from unraveling.

The other 25 men in a control group had a 3 percent shortening of their cell’s telomeres, over five years which typically occurs during that aging time frame.

“Shortened telomeres have been shown to play a role in heart disease, colon cancer, stroke, dementia, and premature death,” said study leader Dr. Dean Ornish, UCSF clinical professor of medicine and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute. “But our study is the first to show that any intervention could lengthen telomeres.”

Still, he added, the findings need to be replicated in larger clinical trials where participants are randomly assigned to make lifestyle changes and then compared to a group assigned to keep their health habits the same.

The vast array of health habits adopted in this study, which was published Monday in the journal Lancet Oncology, required a lot of effort on the part of the volunteers — all of whom had early-stage prostate cancer that was being closely monitored instead of treated.

Participants ate a mostly vegan diet rich in plant-based protein, fruits, vegetables, unrefined grains, and legumes — with only 10 percent of their calories coming from fat. The men also were told to walk or get some form of exercise for 30 minutes, six days a week, and they attended hour-long support-group sessions on a weekly basis. In addition to all of this, they practiced an hour of stress management techniques such as meditation, yoga stretches, or progressive muscle relaxation every day, which probably also helped them sleep better.

Twice monthly sessions with study support staff helped the men stick with these lifestyle patterns for five years, though some were more compliant than others.

“It’s a small study, but it’s big science,” said Dr. David Katz, a prevention medicine specialist at Yale University’s Prevention Research Center who was not involved in the study. “The message we’re getting from this and other studies is consistent: We don’t have the medical capacity to tweak genes and make chronic diseases go away, but we can refashion our fate at the level of our DNA by the behavior choices we make.”

Katz, author of the new book Disease-Proof, believes that following a healthful lifestyle can lower a person’s risk of developing diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes by 80 percent. Like Ornish’s plan, the healthy lifestyle he advocates includes reducing stress, exercising, remaining socially connected, and following a plant-based diet rich in grains and produce. Getting about eight hours of sleep a night and avoiding smoking are also important, he said.

Whether we really need to cut way back on dietary fat to keep our telomeres long remains a matter of debate.

“I certainly have no disagreement with the study’s dietary plan,” Katz said. “But I think if they re-ran the study using an optimal Mediterranean-style diet — with olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seafood — they would get exactly the same results.”

While Ornish may disagree, he did point out that the research found that those men who implemented more modest lifestyle changes had a more modest improvement in their telomere length.

“It’s not all or nothing,” Ornish said. “The more you change, the more you improve, and not everyone needs to make changes to this degree.”

What’s more, not everyone can. Someone dealing with chronic pain or depression might not be capable of making such a dramatic lifestyle overhaul. “You need to consider your starting point,” Katz said, “and be honest and insightful about any barriers standing in your way.”

Deborah Kotz can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.

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