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Healthy living may 'reverse' cellular ageing

"Going on a health kick reverses ageing at the cellular level, researchers say," BBC News reports. The news is based on the results of a small pilot study that looked at whether lifestyle changes can...

"Going on a health kick reverses ageing at the cellular level, researchers say," BBC News reports. The news is based on the results of a small pilot study that looked at whether lifestyle changes can improve telomere length in men with low-risk prostate cancer. Telomere length is thought to be a genetic-level sign of ageing.

In this study, researchers investigated whether adopting a healthy lifestyle could cause telomerase activity and telomere length to increase. Telomeres are protective DNA and protein "caps" which protect the ends of chromosomes.

Telomeres naturally shorten every time the genetic information in cells is duplicated. It is believed that this leads to the ageing and death of individual cells. Telomerase is an enzyme that can add DNA to telomeres, counteracting this shortening.

The researchers found that men who adopted a healthy lifestyle had increased telomere length after five years, whereas telomere length decreased in men who did not change their ways.

While the results of the study are intriguing, this research has significant limitations, including its small sample size – only 10 men were in the intervention group, for example.

Another significant drawback is the assumption that increased telomere length will automatically lead to improved health. This remains unproven.

As the researchers concede, this interesting research will need to be continued in randomised controlled trials in larger groups.

Still, the lifestyle change interventions used in the study (see box) should, if not make you "younger", almost certainly make you healthier.

 

Healthy living

The lifestyle intervention used in the study consisted of four components:

All four of these components are associated with improvements in both physical and mental health.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco State University, and the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, California in the US.

It was funded by the US Department of Defense, the US National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute, and the Furlotti Family, Bahna, DeJoria, Walton Family, Resnick, Greenbaum, Natwin, Safeway and Prostate Cancer Foundations.

Three of the researchers involved in the study have commercial interests in a company that assesses telomere biology. This potential conflict of interest was made clear in the study.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Lancet Oncology.

The research was well reported by most of the media, with most of the articles containing quotes from experts pointing out that this research is very preliminary. However, the Daily Express could not resist the temptation to lead with a front page headline claiming that researchers had found the "Secret of how to live longer".

This claim is misplaced. Although a healthy lifestyle probably will increase life expectancy, this study did not look at whether the men who made lifestyle changes lived longer.

 

What kind of research was this?

This was a small non-randomised trial. Men were not randomised to the lifestyle change or control groups, but instead were recruited into two different studies.

Larger randomised controlled trials are required to confirm the results of this study, as it is possible that differences between the participants or other unknown biases might be responsible for the differences seen.

 

What did the research involve?

The researchers recruited men with low-risk prostate cancer who had decided not to have radiotherapy or surgery and had instead decided to "watch and wait".

Low-risk prostate cancers are small and progress more slowly than high-risk cancers. "Watchful waiting", where no active treatment is immediately planned, is a common approach because radiotherapy and surgery can have severe side effects, such as urinary incontinence. This approach is often recommended for older men when it is unlikely the cancer will affect their natural life span.

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