Comprehensive lifestyle changes could increase the length of telomeres, the ends of chromosomes that control cell aging, according to a pilot study published in The Lancet Oncology. The findings may lead to a better understanding of how lifestyle changes could reverse aging on a cellular level. 

Telomeres are DNA-protein complexes at the end of chromosomes that help protect and stabilize cells as wells as affect how quickly they age. As telomeres become shorter and their structural integrity weakens, cells age and die more quickly. 

Telomere length is an indication of biological age. Shorter telomere length is associated with an increased risk of premature death and age-related diseases, including cardiovascular disease, many forms of cancer, vascular dementia, obesity, osteoporosis, infectious diseases and diabetes. 

Professor Dean Ornish and colleagues at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute and the University of California, San Francisco, compared two small groups of men diagnosed with low-risk prostate cancer and who had not undergone conventional treatments with surgery or radiation. The study group of 10 men made lifestyle changes like adopting a whole foods plant-based diet, moderate exercise and stress management techniques. The control group of 25 men didn’t make any lifestyle changes. 

Researchers measured the length of the participants’ telomeres at the start of the study and after five years. Telomere length increased significantly — by an average of 10 percent — in the group that made lifestyle changes, but decreased by an average of 3 percent in the control group.  And the more the participants made positive lifestyle changes, the greater their telomeres increased in length. 

“The study provides promising evidence that five years of intensive lifestyle changes in the areas of diet, physical activity, stress reduction and social support can reverse a biomarker of aging, namely telomere length,” said Donna Arnett, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health.

She noted that the study was small and that there was a large drop-out rate, so the results should be interpreted with caution.

“We have known that adopting Life’s Simple 7 is strongly protective for cardiovascular disease and stroke,” said Arnett, who is also past president of the American Heart Association. “The study shows that adopting a healthy lifestyle can actually reverse a well-studied biomarker of aging, namely telomere length. That’s great news because it suggests that it is never too late to adopt a healthy lifestyle.”