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Men in the study agreed to comprehensive lifestyle changes including stress management through gentle yoga-based stretching. (Kyle Kurlick/Commercial Appeal/Associated Press)

An intensive plant-based diet, exercise and meditation regime could hold the potential to reverse cellular aging, a pilot study in the U.S. suggests.

The five-year study of 35 men with early stage prostate cancer explored the relationship between lifestyle changes and telomere length. Telomeres are protective caps on the ends of chromosomes. The length of telomeres shrinks every time a cell divides during the aging process.

Scientists suspect that as telomeres shrink, chromosomes become less stable. Shorter telomeres have become associated with aging-related diseases, including some cancers and cardiovascular disease.

"Our comprehensive lifestyle intervention was associated with increases in relative telomere length after five years of followup, compared with controls, in this small pilot study," Dean Ornish of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif., and his co-authors concluded in today's issue of the journal Lancet Oncology.

"Adherence to these healthy behaviours was also associated with increased relative telomere length when all study participants were assessed together."

In the study, all the men were monitored with blood tests and biopsies to measure telomere length.

A total of 10 also changed their lifestyles in four ways:

  • Eating a plant-based diet (high in fruits, vegetables and unrefined grains, and low in fat and refined carbohydrates).
  • Getting moderate exercise (walking 30 minutes a day, six days a week).
  • Reducing stress (gentle yoga-based stretching, breathing, meditation).
  • Meeting weekly to foster social support. .

The other 25 study participants were not asked to make major lifestyle changes.

In those who made the lifestyle changes, telomere length increased by an average of 10 per cent, the researchers found. In contrast, telomere length decreased by an average of three per cent among those in the control group.
The researchers acknowledged that larger randomized controlled trials are needed to confirm the finding and reduce the possibility of bias. No cause-and-effect relationships can be drawn.

The participants in the lifestyle change group were highly motivated, said Joseph Lee, a human geneticist and associate professor of clinical epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, who was not part of the study.

"They maintained the intervention regimen for more than five years and they continued to attend meetings when the meetings were not required," Lee told HealthDay News. "One needs to be cautious as to how effective lifestyle changes will be in a large general population where the level of motivation may not be so high."

Lee also said that the researchers didn't check health traits such as weight, body-mass index or blood pressure along with the length of the patients' telomeres.

The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Defence, the U.S. National Cancer Institute, Prostate Cancer Foundation and several other foundations. Three of the researchers co-founded a diagnostic company that assesses telomere biology.