In September 2013 one of the most empowering research outcomes ever was published in The Lancet Oncology. It concerned telomeres, the strands at the end of our chromosomes. The research, according to lead author Dean Ornish, UCSF clinical professor of medicine, concluded that genes are not necessarily our fate. The study focused on a group of men with early-stage prostate cancer. Half of the group were instructed to continue as normal; the other half made lifestyle changes. These changes involved a low-fat, plant-based diet, low in refined carbs, moderate exercise (walking for half an hour a day), yoga or meditation for an hour a day (to combat stress) and spending more time with friends and loved ones.
At the end of the five year study their telomeres were measured, and it was found that in the group which had changed their lifestyle, their telomeres had lengthened by ten percent. Men in the other group had a 3 percent shortening of telomeres over this period.
Why is this amazing news?
Scientists have been fascinated by telomeres since they were discovered to hold the key to our biological age. It was found that the older we get, the shorter our telomeres are, and the shorter our telomeres, the shorter our lives. It had been conceded that the shortening of telomeres was, however, not entirely dependent on genes, but that hardship and stress accelerated the rate at which they shrank. Factors contributing to early telomere shortening were thought to be smoking, radiation exposure, taking care of relatives with Alzheimer’s or autistic children as well as regular exposure to emotional stress such as a bad marriage or high pressure at work. The study measured telomeres in white blood cells, not in the prostate, making it relevant to the entire population. Although this was only a small pilot study it is significant; most research begins with small studies such as this one. It showed that the more lifestyle changes were made, the longer the telomeres got.
It appears our cells are listening to our suffering (see video page, “Telomeres and aging”). Until now the possibility of lengthening telomeres was seen as something only possible in science fiction, akin to actual rejuvenation, an attitude very much in line with the widespread belief ageing is inevitable, still so prevalent today.
Telomeres then are not age-dependent, in fact it has been found that centenarians have longer telomeres than most 85-year-olds, and it is thought that it is not the telomeres that have given them long life, but that their long lives are attributable to better health, which was reflected in the telomeres. Clearly changes in lifestyle affect cellular ageing.
Cancer cells also have longer telomeres, and this is one of the main reasons attempts to produce an elixir of life based on telomerase for example face so many difficulties. Cancer cells produce telomerase. Aubrey de Grey of the SENS foundation which studies rejuvenation said, “The cancer problem is a really, really big problem.”
This study however indicates that high tech drugs are probably not the answer. Instead low-tech non-medical intervention seems to be extremely effective. Our bodies have a remarkable capacity to heal themselves. Being a victim of abuse, suffering emotionally, allowing negative emotions to dictate our lives and enduring hardship are not irreversible blows to the body. If we make the changes now, using techniques such as kinesiology to clear cellular memory, recognising and combatting stress whenever it appears and practising calorie restriction to reduce oxidative damage, then we can take back control of the ageing process and – as the telomere study seems to suggest – reverse it.