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Positive lifestyle changes can increase longevity at a genetic level

September 18, 2013

There's no denying that aging is a complicated process. How it affects seniors varies considerably from person to person, and although it's largely mysterious, researchers believe that telomeres - DNA protein at the end of chromosomes - play a significant role in the process.

As scientists better understand what factors affect the integrity of telomeres, a team of researchers from the University of California, San Francisco have found that positive lifestyle changes such as moderate exercise and a healthy diet can lengthen telomeres and delay, or even reverse, the aging process, according to findings published in The Lancet Oncology.

Secret rests in length
Experts can glean a lot from a telomere's length. Adults who have shorter telomeres tend show a greater risk of developing serious health conditions such as heart disease, cancer and vascular dementia. To see whether healthy lifestyle habits had an impact on length, researchers turned their attention to a group of men who had low-risk prostate cancer. One group was instructed to make lifestyle changes such as following a plant-based diet, adopting an exercise regimen and focusing on stress management, while the other was told to make no such tweaks. Scientists found the group  that made changes saw an increased length of about 10 percent while the other group experienced a 3 percent decrease.

"If validated by large-scale randomized controlled trials, these comprehensive lifestyle changes may significantly reduce the risk of a wide variety of diseases and premature mortality," said professor Dean Ornish. "Our genes, and our telomeres, are a predisposition, but they are not necessarily our fate."

Confirms previous evidence
By suggesting that a healthy lifestyle for seniors has an impact on a genetic level, the UCSF researchers back up previous findings that have found making small changes can have a serious impact. Some of the most compelling research comes from a 2010 study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, which found that walking for as little as 6 miles a week could drastically reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. 

Relying on MRI scans, researchers found that even in people with mild cognitive impairment, which is often viewed as a precursor to Alzheimer's, moderate physical activity resulted  in a lower rate of memory loss.