Healthy Diet and Exercise Can Reverse Aging in Our Cells

By Lisa Raffensperger | September 17, 2013 2:22 pm

aging reversed

Lifestyle changes may, in fact, be able to turn back the clock on aging. A small pilot study has provided the first evidence that lifestyle changes can lengthen protective regions of our DNA called telomeres.

The study followed 35 men over the course of 5 years, all of whom had been diagnosed with low-risk prostate cancer. Ten of the men were assigned to undertake healthy lifestyle changes: a vegetarian whole-food diet, regular exercise and sessions of stress-reducing meditation or yoga. The others served as controls.

Aging Cells

At the end of five years, researchers found the men who had adopted healthy habits had significantly “younger” DNA than when they began, in terms of telomere length. Telomeres are protective regions at the ends of chromosomes that help keep DNA intact. And shortening of telomeres is closely linked to aging and diseases of old age, explained study author Dean Ornish to LiveScience:

“A number of studies have shown that as telomeres get shorter, the risk of premature death and most chronic disease, from heart disease to cancer, even dementia goes up,” said study researcher Dr. Dean Ornish, clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

“So as our telomeres get shorter, in a sense, our lives get shorter,” Ornish said. “This is the first study showing that lifestyle changes may actually increase the length of telomeres.”

Opposite Effects

The 10 men who made lifestyle changes grew their telomeres by an average of 10% over the course of the study, and the more positive changes they made the more growth they saw. In contrast, telomeres of men in the control group shrunk by an average of 3%. The findings are reported today in The Lancet Oncology.

The small size of the study means that conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt. Tom Vulliamy, senior lecturer in Molecular Biology at Queen Mary University of London, told BBC News:

“It is really important to highlight that this is a small pilot study… Given this, I’m definitely going to wait to see whether this can be replicated on a larger scale and with more sizeable effects before I get excited.”

But if you’re looking for that extra bit of motivation to go for a jog, well—do it for your telomeres.

Image by Blazej Lyjak / Shutterstock

  • Ta’Brianna

    So is this just a guess and haven’t been proven correct yet???

    • Loren Riley

      Define “guess”. A study is different from pure empiricism, but it’s also different from guessing. Some sciences just don’t lend themselves to any kind of straight-up empiric testing. Like, anything involving humans… (correlation is not causation and all that good stuff).
      Even if they had a large study, which would be useful, they’d have to factor out the specific things that influenced the telomeres (was it the meditation, the diet, the exercise, or a combination?) and factor out everything else (like age, gender, external factors like location, personal factors, genetics, etc.)
      “Proven” is a strong word. They’ll never “prove” this the way you can prove something like… gravity’s a real thing. At best they’ll show a correlation between lifestyle and lengthy telomeres. But that’s still pretty awesome. And it’s not really the researchers’ bad – it’s just the nature of what the researchers are studying.

      • Robert

        Right. And who is going to fund a larger study? Most such studies are paid for by big pharma, but since no drugs were used in this study, none of those companies would have an interest. In fact, such studies could indicate that humans might live longer without any synthetic pharmaceuticals, just by exercising and improving their diet. I would love to see a larger study, but the government is broke and big pharma would have no interest, so I’m not optimistic it will happen.

        • Ta’Brianna

          So basically it started at as a test but hasn’t been deeply studied yet

      • Ta’Brianna

        Oh, I was this information for a project so I was just making sure this was information was stable.

    • Rob Neff

      As they said it’s a “pilot study” and better than a guess. Since there were only ten people on the healthy diet, there could be some other factor, some coincidence, the genetics of the participants, possibly even sloppy lab work, whatever, that skewed the results. We don’t think that happened, but it can’t be ruled out until bigger studies with more people and possibly more controlled data are done. But that will take years. In the meantime, it’s a very significant step.

      For one thing, I was not aware that telomeres could ever lengthen, I thought it was inevitable that they shortened with age. Telomeres are thought to prevent many ailments of old-age, so keeping them long is a good thing.

  • Angelle

    Personally, if I have to be miserable and suffer so I can live longer to still be miserable and suffer?..whats the point? rather die

    • Robert

      Angelle, you make it sound like vegetarians who exercise are making some sort of “miserable” sacrifice. Personally, I feel healthier physically and emotionally when I eat right and exercise. I feel lousy if I don’t. :-)

      • Angelle

        Im sure vegetarians who eat healthy and exercise aren’t miserable..because they chose this for their own reasons, and are motivated differently..people are free to do whatever works for doesn’t for me, for a variety of reasons..and unless someone has my genetics/personality/upbringing /personality and emotional make up..they can’t understand or get why I see if differently..

        As someone who is a survivor of a genetically related cancer..( which I can’t control)…I tend to want to enjoy my life now, because who knows how long I have anyway? And eating the foods I like, and not doing things I don’t enjoy and waste my free time works for me…

        I am in my mid fifties…there is a lot of longevity in my family ( even with bad habits)..and so far I don’t have any of the issues you mentioned..maybe someday I will, whether I decided it was worth the extra work and unpleasantness or not..but, for me, it is acceptable risk…( btw I don’t eat entirely unhealthily…just not rigid or strict about it)…my intent is not to disparage those who choose to live that way, but to resist being told I have to do this too…

        • Emily

          respect for living your life how you want. I am very much torn between your philosophy and robert’s in my own life.

          • Angelle

            Thank you Emily…yeah, it is a tough thing..I am actually somewhere in between because of the

    • Rob Neff

      People who don’t exercise and eat whatever they want typically have problems with joint damage, diabetes, shortness of breath and other chronic problems that diminish quality of life and the ability to just get around.

      I’d rather be healthy and active for as long as possible. I’d be quite happy to die in a bicycle accident when I’m 85.

  • Alex Goodcat

    That’s the key I’m 31 I work out and eat healthy .. And everyone that meets me thinks I’m between 22 to 25 .. Maybe it’s true

  • bob

    The real key to longevity is proper choice of grandparents.
    Then you can die healthy

    • Phil Soheili


  • Greg

    I think it’s funny that so many studies, and professionals, and organizations all end up with the same advice. We are all limited by genetics and environment to some extent, however, the best possible lifestyle to maximize your health is a heathly balanced diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, some lean meats (I don’t believe that all meats are bad) and moderate regular exercise. Balance and moderation. That gives you the best average chance for the longest and healthiest lifespan. According to almost every source, it’s really that simple for the average person.

    • FitOldDog

      Agreed. Balance is key, or moderation, including moderation in your moderation (you have to party from time to time).

  • Susan Durham

    Oh, god, quoting Dean Ornish, the man who assisted Steve Jobs in his suicide! That and the stupid woman who keeps saying there is now proof that our pre-dawn ancestors ate grass, and I’m canceling my subscriptions to Discover, and taking Scientific American instead! At least they TRY to get it right!

  • Ta’Brianna

    yepp im a firm believer, working out makes you look younger inside and out!!!!

  • Ta’Brianna

    -Just recently learned meat is bad for you!! There is other foods that contains protein. Meat clogs your arteries, also eggs, milk and other dairy food. SO a plant based diet is the best way :)

  • Ta’Brianna

    Do you believe fast foods should be banned??

  • Ta’Brianna

    Professionals and Organizations always say that we say maintain a certain “so called” diet. However its a rare amount of people that follow it.. and im not one of those people. Sorry!!

  • FitOldDog

    What I liked about this post was the way it stimulated an interesting discussion. Telomere modifications or not. Exercise keeps me alive, but I combine it with the study of body awareness training. Ironman saved my life (well lengthened it, anyway). Interesting article.

    • Debra Harris

      I agree.Really good post! Hope there will be more good post here!Thanks for sharing valuable information.


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