We all know that a healthy lifestyle (diet high in whole foods and low in fat, moderate exercise, managing stress and good social support) is good for us. In fact I will go so far as to say that it isn’t even news that these things help our health and well-being. What is news, or at least newly published, is that these changes may also have a positive effect on telomerase activity and telomere length (1).
Telomeres are complexes of protein and DNA at the end of linear chromosomes. They protect chromosomes from things like nuclear degradation and end-to-end fusion and help keep the chromosome stable. It is typical for telomeres to be shortened with each cell division. This shortening is counteracted by the enzyme telomerase. Although it is normal for telomeres to shorten gradually over time (shortened telomeres are a cellular marker of ageing), telomere attrition is also a marker for many age-related diseases and premature morbidity. In addition, poor telomere maintenance (decrease in telomerase activity and shortening of the telomeres) can be an important predictor of certain types of cancer. Specifically, shortened telomeres in peripheral-blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) are associated with aging and age related disease, and have been proposed as a possible mechanism for the chromosomal rearrangement that is characteristic of prostrate cancer.
In 2008, a group of researchers published results of a 3-month study investigating the effects of lifestyle changes on telomerase activity in men with low-risk prostrate cancer. Their results showed a significant increase in telomerase activity in the PBMCs of the group that made the lifestyle changes compared to a control group that did not make these changes (2). This week in The Lancet Oncology, the same group of researchers published a 5-year follow-up to the study (1).
The results of the 5-year follow-up showed that there was an increase in median telomere length for the participants in the group that made comprehensive lifestyle changes, at the same time the control group saw an overall decrease in telomere length. In the end, the control group’s telomeres were ~3% shorter than those in the lifestyle intervention group.
It is important to note that this was a small study (35 individuals participated, with 10 making the lifestyle changes) and was performed on a very specific population (men with low-risk prostrate cancer). The authors used blood cells (PBMCs) not prostrate tissue to measure telomere length, and while it would not be unreasonable to think that the results might translate to other populations, clearly much larger and more extensive studies would need to be done before any conclusions could be reached with regard to other populations. Finally, the authors measured telomere length between the two groups, but made no mention or comparison of the overall health of the two groups at the end of the study, and although it is hard to argue that lengthened telomeres could be a bad thing, this study did not address any health benefits that might be associated with lengthened telomeres.
In the end, the lifestyle changes the authors implemented for their study subjects are changes we all could benefit from. I know I would probably feel better and be healthier if I ate better, got a bit more exercise, reduced my stress level and spent more time with people who supported me. Who am I to complain it those lifestyle habits lengthen my telomeres too?
- Omish, D. et al. (2013) Effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes on telomerase activity and telomere length in men with biopsy-proven low-risk prostate cancer: 5-year follow-up of a descriptive pilot study. Lancet Oncol. Published online Sepember 17, 2013. DOI: 10.1016/S1470-2045(13)70366-8
- Omish, D. et al. (2008) Increased telomerase activity and comprehensive lifestyle changes: A pilot study. Lancet Oncol. 9, 1048–57.