Telomeres - The long and short of it

Summer 2014, Living Well Magazine

In October 2013 exciting new research was published in prestigious medical journal The Lancet regarding the effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes on telomerase activity in a group of men with prostate cancer.

Telomere shortness is a prognostic marker of ageing, disease and premature death. 

Previous research found an association between 3 months of comprehensive lifestyle changes (diet, activity, stress management and social support) and increased telomerase activity in immune-system cells. This research was followed up five years later to investigate long-term effects.

The research found that comprehensive lifestyle intervention was associated with increases in relative telomere length compared with controls.

So what does this mean?

Ian Gawler recently responded to the research findings on his blog.

The importance of telomeres and telomerase

by Ian Gawler

Telomeres are like the protective caps on the end of shoelaces that protect them from fraying. Only telomeres protect your DNA from fraying.

Short telomeres are associated with many things that can go wrong with your health right up to premature death. Shortening telomeres are also crucial in the process of aging. Delay telomere shortening, have longer telomeres, and all the evidence points to significantly better health, delayed aging, and increased longevity.

In related blogs, I have presented evidence that shows shorter telomeres are associated with an increased likelihood of developing cancer and other chronic degenerative diseases, and that for people who do develop cancer, the longer their telomeres, the less likely they are to die of cancer.

So clearly, looking after our telomeres, preventing them from shortening and lengthening them if possible, is crucial to our good health and a vibrant old age.

Happily the body has it’s own built in telomere protector and regenerator. Telomerase is the enzyme that does just this and evidence has been mounting that increased telomerase levels increase telomere length and reduce wear and tear on telomeres.

To date the things that have been shown to increase telomerase activity are a fairly seriously healthy lifestyle (which includes a way of eating very similar to the Wellness (or maintenance) Diet I have advocated for years and is detailed in You Can Conquer Cancer), meditation and some herbs.

Now the exciting new research

In a small pilot study, Dean Ornish, along with Australia’s own Nobel Prize winner for medicine Elizabeth Blackburn, have investigated the long-term effects of a program of comprehensive lifestyle changes (diet, activity, stress management, and social support).

The results are compelling, showing that in this small pilot study, comprehensive lifestyle intervention, when compared with controls, was associated with increases in relative telomere length after 5 years of follow-up.

To quote directly from the research

Relative telomere length increased from baseline by a median of 0·06 telomere to single-copy gene ratio (T/S) units (IQR—0·05 to 0·11) in the lifestyle intervention group, but decreased in the control group (−0·03 T/S units, −0·05 to 0·03, difference p=0·03). 

When data from the two groups were combined, adherence to lifestyle changes was significantly associated with relative telomere length after adjustment for age and the length of follow-up (for each percentage point increase in lifestyle adherence score, T/S units increased by 0·07, 95% CI 0·02—0·12, p=0·005). 

Larger randomised controlled trials are warranted to confirm this finding.

A major new rationale

Currently there are many ways to explain the seemingly obvious suggestion that a healthy lifestyle is good for us. However, this new research offers a whole new way of understanding how this may unfold on a cellular level.

We know longer telomeres are associated with lower risks of the chronic degenerative diseases including cancer. We know longer telomeres are associated with longer cancer survival and even a longer life span for everyone.

We have known for a while that activating the enzyme telomerase was possible through a healthy lifestyle, meditation and some herbs.

This new research is the first to suggest that increasing telomerase activity does translate into longer telomeres over time. The implications for preventive medicine, recovery from the chronic degenerative diseases and for longer, vibrant lifespans are exciting indeed and this pilot study is bound to stimulate a mass of follow-up research to test these implications.

Are we seeing a benefit or a norm?

When research shows us that a healthy lifestyle is associated with longer telomeres over time compared to controls, I suspect what it is really telling us is that the controls, who are really ordinary people doing what ordinary people do these days, are knocking their telomeres around unduly.

I suspect the healthy lifestyle tells us what a normal, healthy telomere does; the controls tell us what so many in our current society are doing – eating badly, not exercising, getting stressed out – and prematurely shortening their telomeres with all the unhappy consequences that follow.

What to do?

Obviously, this research provides another compelling reason to take up on a really healthy lifestyle and to meditate regularly. The research showed a “dose dependent relationship”. The more thorough you are, the greater the benefit. It is worth developing healthy habits and sticking to them.

For the full research article go to www.thelancet.com/oncology

tel·o·mere

‘télə,mi(ə)r,’telə-/

noun: telomere;  

plural noun: telomeres

The ends of eukaryotic chromosomes that serve as protective caps essential for preserving the genetic information.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, Discoverer 

Australian Dr. Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Morris Herzstein Professor in Biology and Physiology in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, is a leader in the area of telomere and telomerase research.

She discovered the molecular nature of telomeres and the ribonucleoprotein enzyme, telomerase.

Throughout her career Blackburn has been honoured by her peers as the recipient of many prestigious awards and in 2009, Dr. Blackburn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.