This is 45-year old Elizabeth Parrish, CEO of BioViva. In September 2015, she received two experimental gene therapy treatments developed by her company. One treatment was intended to protect against loss of muscle mass with age. The other was developed to battle stem cell depletion responsible for a broad range of age-related diseases and infirmities.
Before taking the experimental treatments, DNA testing revealed that Parrish’s telomeres were unusually short which would make her more susceptible to age-related diseases. In March 2016, about six months after the experimental treatments, an independent laboratory reported that Parrish’s telomeres had lengthened from about 6.71kb to 7.33kb, presumably adding 20 biological years to her life.
So, how long are your telomeres?
As described in this two-minute biological science lesson, we learn that telomeres are short segments of DNA which cap the ends of every chromosome that protect our cells against wear and tear. Telomeres shorten with every cell division, eventually getting too short to protect the chromosome, causing the cells to stop replicating (called “cell senescence”), the body to age and ultimately leading to death.
There is no question, environment and lifestyle are critical factors in the longevity equation. In recent years, however, scientific research has conclusively established that genetic composition, as measured by telomere length, is directly linked to the human biological clock.
In other words, telomere length correlates to genetic life span and is considered a primary cause of aging. Telomere attrition can trigger age-related disease such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cardiovascular, cancer, stroke and osteoporosis. In addition to unlocking major breakthroughs in longevity, the study of telomeres may potentially revolutionize global knowledge and practices related to healthy aging.
There is yet another reason telomeres are worthy of top-priority scientific research as well as our prime-time attention. Cancer is a condition where certain cells in your body are not able to die and continue to reproduce.
As cells stop dying and continue to reproduce, biological balance is disrupted because too many of one kind of cell are produced. Groups of these out-of-control growing cells form tumors that are cancerous. Researchers have determined that cancer cells create the enzyme telomerase, which actually prevents telomere shortening.
So there it is, telomeres may be the holy grail to both longevity and prevention of a broad spectrum of age-related diseases. In addition, telomerase could be at the core of discovering future cures for cancer. Suffice to say, telomeres and telomerase are a very big deal.
But here’s the thing, outside of experimental therapies like those being developed by BioViva and others, I wonder if there are any practical ways for people to lengthen their telomeres while we await long-anticipated scientific breakthroughs?
Well the answer is both surprising and encouraging. Yes! There are tangible ways for people to lengthen their telomeres. A study published in the September 2014 journal, The Lancelot Oncology, conclusively determined that comprehensive lifestyle changes significantly lengthened telomeres.
Over five years, researchers followed 35 men with localized early-stage prostate cancer to explore the relationship between comprehensive lifestyle changes and telomere length and telomerase activity. All of the participants were closely monitored through screening and biopsies.
The study published in 2014 was a follow-up to a similar three-month pilot investigation conducted in 2008, where the same participants followed the same prescribed lifestyle programs. After three months, men in the first study who embarked on comprehensive lifestyle changes exhibited much increased telomerase activity.
As you may recall, the enzyme telomerase is generated by cancer cells and prevents shortening of telomeres, which in turn causes uncontrollable growth of cells and proliferates cancer. On the flip side, telomerase is an enzyme that actually repairs and lengthens telomeres.
Now I’m confused. Seems like this enzyme telomerase is a good actor in repairing and lengthening healthy telomeres, but a bad actor when generated by cancer cells that prevent shortening of telomeres. Might this be the common denominator between longevity and cancer?
Back to the research. The study was conducted by scientists at UC San Francisco and the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, a nonprofit public research institute in Sausalito, California that investigates the effect of diet and lifestyle choices on health and disease. The study examined whether lifestyle changes would affect telomere length and telomerase activity in these men over a longer time period (i.e. five years vs. three months).
Ten of the participants pursued comprehensive lifestyle changes that included: a plant-based diet (high in fruits, vegetables and unrefined grains, and low in fat and refined carbohydrates); moderate exercise (walking 30 minutes a day, six days a week); stress reduction (gentle yoga-based stretching, breathing, meditation). They also participated in weekly group support.
These 10 participants that embarked on comprehensive lifestyle changes over five years were compared to the control group of 25 study participants who were not asked to make major lifestyle changes. The group that made the lifestyle changes experienced a “significant” increase in telomere length of about 10 percent.
Of particular interest, scientists conclusively determined that the more people changed their behavior by adhering to the recommended lifestyle program, the more dramatic their improvements in telomere length. By contrast, the men in the control group who did not alter their lifestyles had measurably shorter telomeres – nearly 3 percent shorter – when the five-year study ended. Telomere length usually decreases over time.
Researchers believe that the findings from this 2014 study may not be limited to men with prostate cancer but are likely relevant to the general population because telomeres were measured in the participant’s blood, not their prostate tissue.
Scientists concluded that while this groundbreaking research requires confirmation by larger studies, they believe that increases in telomere length may help prevent chronic aging diseases and possibly lengthen lifespan.
So, here is the recap of lifestyle changes made by the UCSF study participants who successfully lengthened their telomeres and presumably added healthy years to their biological clock.
Count me in on lifestyle changes. Bottom line, length matters.
“Research indicates that longer telomeres are associated with fewer illnesses and longer life. Our genes, and our telomeres, are not necessarily our fate. These findings indicate that telomeres may lengthen to the degree that people change how they live.”
~ Dean Ornish, M.D., Senior Study Researcher