Healthy diet may reverse aging, study finds
Sep. 16, 2013
A program of healthy eating, exercise and stress reduction can not only reverse
some diseases -- it may actually slow down the aging process at the genetic
level, researchers reported Monday.
The lifestyle changes affected the telomeres -- little caps on the end of the
chromosomes that carry the DNA, the team at the University of California, San
The report, published in Lancet Oncology, is based on just a few men, and
prostate cancer patients at that. But it shows surprising results: Men who
switched to a vegan diet, added exercise and stress reduction had longer
The men followed a program advocated by Dr. Dean Ornish, who has long researched
the role of a very low-fat, vegetarian diet in improving health. Ornish, a
professor of medicine at UCSF, worked with telomere expert Dr. Elizabeth
Blackburn, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine for her discoveries.
"Taken as a whole, this is really the first study showing that any intervention
may reduce cellular aging," Ornish told NBC News. "I think these findings are
almost certainly not restricted to men with prostate cancer."
Ornish and Blackburn's team examined 10 prostate cancer patients who had chosen
to try Ornish's program, and compared them to 25 patients who had not. They all
had early stage prostate cancer that wasn't considered dangerous.
The program includes eating a diet high in whole foods, fruits, vegetables,
unrefined grains and keeping fat to 10 percent of calories. The average American
gets more than a third of calories from fat. For the first three months,
volunteers got take-home meals.
They also exercised, walking at least 30 minutes a day, six days a week, did
yoga-based stretching and breathing exercises, practiced relaxation techniques
and went to weekly one-hour stress-reduction group sessions. And they gave blood
"We found that telomerase increased by 30 percent in just three months," Ornish
said. Telomerase is an enzyme that affects telomeres. They also looked at gene
activity. "Gene expression on 500 genes changed, in every case in a beneficial
way," Ornish told NBC News.
Five years later, the team took blood samples again. The 10 men who followed the
Ornish plan had significantly longer telomeres five years later -- on average 10
percent longer. The 25 men who had not followed the program had shorter
telomeres -- 3 percent shorter on average.
"The more people changed their lifestyles, the more they improved," Ornish said.
Ornish's diet plan has been shown to
reverse heart disease , diabetes and may help keep early prostate
cancer in check.
Ornish was working with prostate cancer patients who had chosen not to get any
treatment for their tumors. Only a few men had given enough blood in the study
to make it possible to test their stored samples, so he thinks a larger study
should now be conducted.
Ornish says the program is easy to follow. Each of the 10 men had stuck with it
for five years and longer -- long past the time they were enrolled in the study.
"We are getting 85 to 95 percent adherence to our program," he said. "We are
getting ridiculously high levels of adherence."
Ornish says that's because it's pleasant, and comprehensive. "And most people
feel so much better they change their lifestyle," he said.
"People often think that it has to be a new drug or a new laser, something
really high-tech and expensive to be powerful. What we are finding is the simple
choices that we make every day are more powerful."