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. 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.
The lifestyle intervention used in the study consisted of four components:
eating a healthy low-fat diet high in whole foods, plant-based proteins, fruit and vegetables, and unrefined grains
All four of these components are associated with improvements in both physical and mental health.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Lancet Oncology.
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.
Treatment for prostate cancer
Many men will require no treatment for prostate cancer, depending on the stage and grade of the tumour. Find out more abouttreatment of prostate cancer.
The men participated in two studies: the GEMINAL study and the MENS study. Both studies monitored the men's tumours.
Men participating in the GEMINAL study had a complete lifestyle change. They:
ate a diet high in whole foods, plant-based protein, fruits, vegetables, unrefined grains and legumes, and low in fat and refined carbohydrates (meals were provided for the first three months)
performed moderate aerobic exercise by walking for 30 minutes per day six days per week
managed stress with gentle yoga-based stretching, breathing, meditation, imagery and progressive relaxation for 60 minutes daily
had increased social support, with 60-minute support sessions once per week
For the first three months, at each weekly session men in the GEMINAL study:
had another hour of moderate exercise supervised by an exercise physiologist
had one hour of stress management techniques supervised by a certified stress management specialist
attended one hour of support group led by a clinical psychologist
attended a one-hour lecture by a dietitian, nurse or doctor during dinner
After the first three months meetings were not compulsory, but patients could continue to meet on their own for two four-hour meetings per month.
Men participating in the MENS study did not have any help to make lifestyle changes.
The researchers monitored whether the men in both studies made lifestyle changes and calculated a lifestyle index score based on diet, stress management, exercise and social support.
Blood samples were taken from the men at the start of the studies and again five years later. The researchers measured telomere length in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (any blood cell with a round nucleus). They also looked at how active the enzyme telomerase was.
The researchers looked at whether there were differences in changes between baseline and five years after the study started between both groups of men. They looked at changes in:
telomere length, measured in "single-copy ratio units", a type of measurement used by geneticists to compare the size of telomeres
lifestyle index score
prostate specific antigen (PSA) concentration
Prostate cancer can increase the production of PSA – a hormone produced by the prostate – although raised PSA levels are also found in many older men without prostate problems.
What were the basic results?
The researchers used information from 10 men participating in the GEMINAL study who underwent comprehensive lifestyle changes and compared them with 25 men who participated in the MENS study (controls).
After five years, men in the lifestyle change group made more lifestyle changes than men in the control group. Therefore, changes in the lifestyle index score were significantly higher in the lifestyle change group.
After five years, telomere length had increased by a median (average) of 0.06 telomere to single-copy gene ratio units in the lifestyle change group. It had decreased by 0.03 telomere to single-copy gene ratio units in the control group. The difference in changes was statistically significant.
When men from both groups were combined, it was found that improvements in lifestyle were significantly associated with changes in telomere length. For each per cent increase in lifestyle index score, the relative telomere length increased by 0.07 telomere to single-copy gene ratio units after adjustment for age and length of follow-up.
After five years, there was no significant difference in change in telomerase activity (the ability of the enzyme telomerase extracted from cells to add DNA to telomeres) between the two groups, and telomerase activity was not found to be associated with changes in lifestyle.
There was also no significant difference in change in prostate specific antigen (PSA) concentrations between the two groups.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers concluded that a "comprehensive lifestyle intervention was associated with increases in relative telomere length after five years of follow-up, compared with controls, in this small pilot study. Larger randomised controlled trials are warranted to confirm this finding."
This interesting study has found that a comprehensive lifestyle intervention was associated with increases in relative telomere length after five years of follow-up in men with prostate cancer.
However, this is a small non-randomised study and it is possible that there are unknown sources of bias. The men came from different trials and they may have differed in other unknown ways. A randomised controlled trial is the only way to counteract this bias and this type of study needs to be performed to confirm these findings.
This research does not show whether lifestyle changes increase telomere length in groups of people other than men with prostate cancer.
Finally, although increases in relative telomere length are thought to be beneficial, it is not clear what, if any, impact this had on the men's health. For example, do longer telomeres mean a better prognosis for men with prostate cancer?
Hopefully these questions will be answered if further research is carried out.