Changes in senior lifestyles may have positive impact

A balanced diet and active lifestyle are cornerstones of healthy senior living, and while most people recognize the benefits – lower blood pressure, improved heart health and ideal weight – a new study reveals that small changes to one’s lifestyle can have a substantial impact at the genetic level as well. Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, found that people who exercise, eat a healthy diet and manage stress levels may increase the length of their telomeres – protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that commonly get shorter with age, according to findings published in The Lancet Oncology.

Genetics not the only factor
The findings are based on an analysis of a small group of men living with low-risk prostate cancer. One half of the men were instructed to follow a regimen that included a vegetable-based diet, regular moderate exercise, stress management and support group attendance. The other half did not undergo any such interventions. By the end of the study, researchers found the group that changed its lifestyle experienced a 10 percent growth in the length of its telomeres. Conversely, the other half saw them shrink by about 3 percent. Researchers believe these findings should spur people to take action.

“So often people think ‘Oh, I have bad genes, there’s nothing I can do about it,’” lead author Dean Ornish said. “But these findings indicate that telomeres may lengthen to the degree that people change how they live. Research indicates that longer telomeres are associated with fewer illnesses and longer life.”

Small study, but encouraging results
Although the study was relatively small – it only focused on 35 subjects – experts are encouraged by the results. Previous research has signaled that telomeres may be the key to aging. According to Richard Cawthon, a geneticist from the University of Utah, adults over the age of 60 who have shorter telomeres are about three times more likely to die from heart disease and eight times more likely to die from infectious disease. Still, what remains unclear is whether shorter telomeres are a sign of aging or actually contribute to the process. Whatever the relationship between telomeres and aging is, the benefits of making positive lifestyle changes is hard to deny.