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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 Francisco report.
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 telomeres.
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 samples.
“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 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.”