Telomeres – Cap It All Off with Diet


“Telomeres – Cap It All Off With Diet” What about exercise
for slowing cellular aging? Stress management helps, but we can’t always change
our station in life, but we can always go out for a walk. Researchers studied 2,400 twins, and those that exercised more pumped up
their telomeres along with their muscles. These were mostly folks in their 40’s. Does it still work in our 50’s? Yes, those habitual exercisers were working out
three hours a week — better than the younger group — the heavy exercise group here was
only averaging a half an hour a day. What happens if you study hard-core athletes? Here’s the telomere lengths of the young,
healthy, regular folks at around age 20, and then age 50, which is what you’d expect: our telomeres get eaten away as we age. But what about the athletes? They started out in the same boat – nice, long, young, healthy telomeres
capping all their chromosomes. And then at age 50, they appeared to still
have the chromosomes of a 20-year old. But these were marathon runners, triathletes,
running 50 miles a week for 35 years. That’s worse than the meditation retreat study. And it doesn’t help us with the original question. What was it about the Ornish intervention that so powerfully protected telomeres
after just three months? We saw that just stress
management seemed to help, but what about the diet versus exercise? Was it the plant-based diet? Was it the walking 30 minutes a day? Or was it just because
of the weight loss? In those three months,
participants lost about 20 pounds. Maybe our telomeres are happy if
we lose 20 pounds using any method: starting a cocaine habit,
getting tuberculosis, whatever. To answer this critical question, “Was it the plant-based diet specifically,
the exercise or the weight loss?” ideally you’d do a study where you randomize
people into at least three groups: a control group that did nothing –
sedentary with a typical diet, a group that just exercised, and a group that lost weight eating pretty much
the same diet but just in smaller portions. And I’m happy to report in 2013
just such a study was published. They took 400 women and randomized
them into four groups, a portion-controlled diet group,
an exercise group, and a portion-controlled diet
and exercise group, for a full year. And here they are. This is how long the telomeres
were at base line. After a year of doing nothing there was essentially no
change in the control group, which is what we’d expect. The exercise group was no wimpy
Ornish 30-minute stroll, but 45 minutes, moderate to vigorous
exercise like jogging. After a year of that, how did they do? They did no better. What about just the weight loss?
Nothing. And exercise and weight loss?
No significant change either. So as long as we’re eating the same lousy diet, it doesn’t appear to matter
how small our portions are, or how much weight we lose
or how hard we exercise. After a year, they saw no benefit. Whereas the Ornish group
on the plant-based diet lost the same amount of weight
after just three months, exercising less than half as hard, and
saw significant telomere protection. So it wasn’t the weight loss.
It wasn’t the exercise.
It was the food. What about a plant-based
diet is so protective? Higher consumption of vegetables. Less butter and more fruit. And from the latest review,
foods high in fiber and vitamins. But the key may be avoiding saturated fat. Swapping just 1% of saturated fat
calories in a diet for anything else can add nearly a whole year of aging’s
worth of length onto our telomeres. Researchers have calculated how much of
our telomeres we may shave off per serving: foods like ham or hot dogs,
bologna, salami, other lunch meats. Fish consumption was also significantly
associated with shortened telomeres. Saturated fats, like palmitic acid — the primary saturated fat in salmon, and
found in meat, eggs, and dairy in general — can actually be toxic to cells. This has been demonstrated in heart cells,
bone marrow cells, pancreatic cells, brain cells. And the toxic effects on cell
death rates happen right around what you see in the blood stream of people
who eat a lot of animal products. It may not be the saturated fat itself, though. Saturated fats may just be a marker for the increased oxidative stress and inflammation
associated with animal-derived foods. With this link to saturated fat, no wonder life-long, low cholesterol
levels have been related to longer telomeres and a smaller
proportion of short telomeres. In other words, markers of slower
biological aging with lower cholesterol. In fact there’s a rare congenital
birth defect called Progeria Syndrome, where children essentially age
8 to 10 times faster than normal. And it seems associated with a particular
inability to handle animal fats. In this case report, they started trying
to lower her cholesterol starting at age 2, but sadly she died shortly after
this picture was taken at age 10. The good news is that even if we’ve
been beating up on our telomeres, despite past accumulated injury
leading to shorter telomere length, current healthy behaviors
may help to decrease our risk of some of the potential
consequences like heart disease. Eating more fruits and vegetables
and less meat, having more support
from friends and families, to attenuate the association between
shorter telomeres and the ravages of aging. To summarize, here’s a schematic
of this constant battle. Inflammation, oxidation,
damage and dysfunction, constantly hacking away at our telomeres. At the same time, our anti-oxidant defenses — a healthy diet, exercise, stress reduction — are constantly rebuilding them. Telomere length shortens with age. Progressive shortening of our telomeres leads
to cell death or transformation to cancer, affecting the health and life span in an individual. But the rate at which telomere shortening
can be either increased or decreased by specific lifestyle factors,
better choice of diet and activities, has great potential to reduce
the rate of telomere shortening, or at least prevent excessive
telomere shrinkage leading to delayed onset of age-related
diseases and increased life span.