We have all heard the legend of Ponce de León searching for the elusive and magical Fountain of Youth, believing whoever bathed or drank from it would live forever. It is just a myth – it never really happened. The tale was conjured up by Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés who disliked Ponce de León and wanted to make Ponce de León appear foolish as part of his legacy after his death in 1521.
Ok – so there is no fountain of youth and there never was. But did you know a whole food plant-based diet (WFPBD) can slow down the aging process? Truthfully, I like that idea better. Anyway, who wants to live forever?
So how do we age? The nucleus of nearly every cell has 23 pairs of chromosomes, each containing 46 strands of tightly wound coils of DNA. At the tip of each of these DNA strands is a protective end cap, like the tip of a shoelace, called a telomere. Telomeres are a combination of our genetic DNA and proteins, and their job is to protect the chromosomes from harm. Every time a cell divides, the DNA Is copied, and in the process, some of the telomere caps gets tattered and shortened. When the cap gets too short, it falls off and sends a signal to the cells that the DNA is no longer protected and cannot do its job well, therefore it is time for the cell to stop dividing and die. As our telomeres get shorter, our lifespan gets shorter.
This is just one part of the aging process. Shorter telomeres are not only associated with a shorter life span, but also with several age-related diseases including some cancers, vascular dementia, stroke, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, obesity, and diabetes.
Another layer of protection our body produces for our precious DNA is telomerase. In 2009 Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn received the Noble Peace Prize in Medicine for her discovery of telomerase, an enzyme that is continually working to protect DNA from damage during cell division. Its job is to lengthen and rebuild telomeres. (More on telomeres and Dr. Blackburn’s finding of telomerase can be found in her 2017 TED talk).
A pilot study was conducted by a group of scientists including Dr. Dean Ornish and published in The Lancet Oncology found that when people made comprehensive lifestyle changes by eating a low-fat diet (plant-based and 10% of calories from fat) along with activity, stress management, and social support, the telomerase enzyme activity that repairs and lengthens telomeres increased 29% in just 3 months. The lifestyle modifications significantly boosted the telomeres’ activity – the only thing known to do so. A five year follow-up study found telomeres were even longer than in the previous study for those who maintained the lifestyle modifications. Telomere length decreased in those that had not adhered to the lifestyle interventions.
Keeping our telomeres doing their job well is key to having a long, healthy life. So what can we do to protect the integrity of our telomeres so we can experience healthy aging? Let’s review various studies, including Dr. Dean Ornish’s, on the effect lifestyle changes have on maintaining and lengthening telomeres.
A randomized controlled study showed exercise has a beneficial effect on telomeres. The study concluded aerobic exercise for more than six months along with other lifestyle changes slowed the decline in telomere length (aging). Moderate aerobic exercise walking 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week, was the exercise component in Dr. Dean Ornish’s study.
Results of a meta-analysis on the effects of stress on telomere length showed stress takes a hit on telomere length, with chronic long term stress having greater detriment to telomere length than short term stress. Interventions to manage stress in the Ornish study included yoga, breathing, meditation, and progressive relaxation for 60 minutes daily. Methods people use to successfully manage stress will vary from person to person.
A racial and ethnic diverse sample of people found low social support is associated with shorter telomeres in adults age 65 and older. The study found that our social environment may contribute to the rate of cellular aging, especially later in life. The Ornish study participants met once a week for 60 minutes for social support.
Eating a WFPB diet rich in antioxidants including carotenoids, lycopene, alpha and beta carotenes, and flavonoids can preserve our telomeres in a big way. Plants have 64 times more antioxidants than animal products. Antioxidants are anti-inflammatory, reduce the release of damaging free radicals, and increase the release and activity of telomerase. While not every plant has been tested for antioxidants, generally speaking, it is safe to say all plants have antioxidants. The USDA tested 100 plant foods for their antioxidant content. These were their top 20:
- Small red beans
- Wild blueberries
- Red delicious apples
- Red kidney beans
- Granny Smith apples
- Pinto beans
- Cultivated blueberries
- Sweet cherries
- Black plums
- Russet potatoes
- Black beans
- Gala apples
If you are interested in the antioxidant level of more foods, Google “antioxidant food table base,” and you will find the antioxidant levels of 3,100 foods. Bottom line regarding supporting our telomeres with food is simple and can be summarized in two words – PLANTS ROCK!
Ideally, we want a small gap between our healthspan, the period of our life that we are in good health, and our lifespan, the number of years we live. These studies once again prove our genes (DNA) are not our destiny. Whereas a small percentage of people have “good genes” and can life a long life despite their lifestyle, a majority would rather not gamble on having good genes (you don’t want to lose that bet!), and instead practice healthful behaviors to enjoy a long healthspan.
Engage in life fully – eat a WFPB diet, manage stress, hang out with people you enjoy, and exercise on a regular basis.
 Ornish, Lin, Daubenmier, Weidner, Epen, Kemp. . . Blackburn. 2008, Sept. 16. Increased Telomerase Activity and Comprehensive and Lifestyle Changes: A Pilot Study. The Lancet Oncology DOI: 10.1016/S1470-2045(08)70234-1.
 Ornish, Lin, Chan, Epel, Kemp, Weidner. 2017,Sept 13.Effect of Comprehensive Lifestyle Changes on Telomerase Activity and Telomere Length in Men with Biopsy-Proven Low-Risk Prostate Cancer: 5 Year Follow-Up of a Descriptive Pilot Study. The Lancet Oncology. (13)70366-8.
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