How Can You Keep Your DNA Young?
Telomeres protect our chromosomes, with telomere length related to several age-related diseases, cancer, and lifespan.
Faust, the eponymous protagonist in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s famous play, asks Mephistopheles in the chapter Hexenküche (Witches’ kitchen) what he can do to improve his life. The erudite protagonist is bored and depressed with his life as a scholar.
Contemplating suicide, Faust goes for a walk as nearby Easter celebrations start. Walking with his assistant Wagner, Faust is followed home by a stray poodle. In Faust’s study, the poodle transforms into Mephistopheles. The devil provides some advice, which I will paraphrase: Seek out a life of moderation, stop being lazy, exercise regularly by plowing the field, and avoid unhealthy foods!
Faust did not respond positively. He does not like manual labor and opts for a magic youth potion. In essence, Faust trades his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge. Mephistopheles offers Faust magical powers for a set number of years, but at the end of the term, the Devil will claim Faust’s soul, and Faust will be eternally enslaved.
Let’s explore what I think is a reasonable alternative pathway to longer life: Slowing telomere shortening through lifestyle improvements.
Telomeres are strings of genetic material (DNA) located at the ends of each of your chromosomes. Telomeres help protect the chromosome ends from damage and from tangling with other chromosomes nearby. With each cell division, the telomeres shorten. Finally, they become so short that the cell can no longer divide.
Because telomere length (TL) shortens each time a cell division occurs, TL can serve as a biological aging marker. Telomere length is also associated with age-related disorders, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and cancer. That’s the bad news.
Now the good news: Recent studies indicate that telomere length can be affected by several lifestyle interventions. You may be able to alter the pace of aging, in addition to the natural history of many age-related illnesses.
Today, I want to chat with you about how exercise can have positive effects on your telomeres. We first will review a bit about telomeres before turning to a research study looking at how much physical activity is necessary to fight against our cells’ aging. Next, we’ll turn to how mindfulness may slow telomere shortening. Finally, let’s take a quick look at diet, the third means by which you may slow telomere shortening. In summary, I hope to address the three ways you can restrict the aging clock:
- physical activity
Keeping DNA Young Through Exercise
Do you want to stay young? A key to the aging process of your cells is the DNA within. I recently came across a provocative study from the de Duve Institute at the Catholic University of Louvain in Brussels (Belgium). The research findings suggest that moderate-intensity physical activity slows cellular aging. Here’s what the researchers did:
They looked at cellular telomeres. The scientists then identified a molecule that directs the telomere shortening process. Historically, we did not understand how our chromosomes regulate DNA snipping.
Ten health individuals rode stationary bicycles for 45 minutes. The researchers then took a small tissue sample (biopsy) from a muscle from each of their legs before and after a bicycle riding session. They also measured lactate, which is produced by muscles under stress. Examining the biopsy tissue, they found nuclear respiratory factor 1 (NRF1), a substance charged with regulating a factor that controls telomere shortening. The researchers described the process to Time magazine:
“Think about NRF1 like varnish on nails. You can’t change the nail, but you can change the varnish repeatedly. You’re refreshing and replacing the old section with new protective molecules at the telomeres.”
Moderate exercise renews telomere protection. Such refreshing helps the DNA to stave off, at least to some degree, the aging process. Each episode of training is a process of renewal, but affecting NRF1. Interestingly, starvation leads to a pathway that involves NRF1. You may have heard that fasting may help cells stay younger biologically, and not divide as frequently as possible.
While the researchers did not determine if 45 minutes of biking resulted in longer telomeres, they did demonstrate a possible mechanism for such a connection. Continuing with our theme of optimizing telomere length, let’s look at mindfulness.
Mindfulness slows telomere shortening
Let’s turn to mindfulness and telomeres. Many of us practice mindfulness, such as meditation. I use it to reduce stress and to optimize my general health. Studies demonstrate benefits for conditions such as:
- immune disorders
- hot flashes
Meditation may also have a salutatory effect on longevity. Intensive meditation training can change telomerase activity. Publishing in 2011, Tonya Jacobs and colleagues investigated the impact of a 3-month meditation retreat on telomerase activity.
Thirty retreat participants meditated for approximately six hours daily over a three month period. Researchers compared them with a wait-list control group, matching sex, age, body mass index, and prior experience with meditation. They checked psychological measures before and after the meditation intervention and took white blood cell samples to assess telomerase activity. Their findings found that, compared with the control group, meditation retreat participants had:
- increases in perceived control
- decreases in neuroticism
- increases in mindfulness and purpose in life
Going further, they linked meditation and positive psychological change with telomerase activity. Additionally, increases in Purpose in Life directly mediated the telomerase group difference, whereas increases in Mindfulness did not.
This study is the first to associate meditation and positive psychological change with telomerase activity.
Unfortunately, the study authors did not measure baseline telomerase activity. Other studies have demonstrated a meditation: longer telomere length in blood cells.
Diet and telomere length
A systematic review and meta-analysis recently tried to determine the effect of diet on telomere length. The study authors included five randomized clinical trials involving nine diets and 533 participants. The authors concluded that they could not offer any final statement regarding the absence of an effect of diet on telomere length, given substantial differences in diet interventions’ type and duration.
Other research studies have found a positive link between specific diets and telomere length. A systematic review and meta-analysis published earlier this year saw a positive link between a Mediterranean-type diet and telomere length. The authors concluded the following:
Higher adherence to a Mediterranean diet appears to be associated with longer telomere length. However, we need larger and higher-quality prospective studies to confirm this association.
Real-life indications that lifestyle can affect telomere length
A 2013 study published in The Lancet Oncology by researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, and the Preventative Medicine Research Institute reported that changes in diet, exercise, stress management, and social support might result in longer telomeres.
This study is the first controlled trial to show that an intervention might lengthen telomeres over time. Let’s turn to the study details. Over five years, researchers monitored 35 men with localized, early prostate cancer. These patients had no therapeutic intervention; instead, they engaged in active surveillance with blood tests and biopsies to ensure no cancer progression.
Ten of the study participants modified their lifestyle:
- a plant-based diet (high in fruits, vegetables, and unrefined grains; low in fat and refined carbohydrates)
- moderate exercise, including walking 30 minutes for six days per week
- stress reduction (meditation, breathing, gentle yoga-based stretching)
- group support, weekly
Researchers compared this intervention group to the other 25 subjects who did not make lifestyle changes. Here are the results after five years:
1. The lifestyle changes group increased their telomere length by about 10 percent.
2. The control group saw a nearly 3 percent decrease in telomere length.
The more individuals altered their behavior by adhering to the recommended lifestyle program, the more dramatic the telomeres’ improvements.
The scientists discovered that the more individuals altered their behavior by adhering to the recommended lifestyle program, the more dramatic the improvements in the length of telomeres. The study authors concluded that “the findings may not be limited to men with prostate cancer, and are likely to be relevant to the general population.” Dr. Dean Ornish added, “We looked at telomeres in the participants’ blood, not their prostate tissue.”
What you need to know
Telomere length shortens with age. With such a decrease in size, we experience cellular aging, affecting our health and lifespan. Shorter telomeres are associated with more disease and lower survival. We have looked at a few of the ways specific lifestyle factors can influence the rate of telomere shortening. I am excited that better lifestyle choices may allow us to live not only longer but better.
Thank you for joining me today. I’m Dr. Michael Hunter.
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