LONDON -- The fountain of youth may simply be a healthy diet and reduced stress after all, not a magic pill or expensive cosmetics.
Comprehensive lifestyle changes, including more fruit and vegetables as well as meditation and yoga, were shown to reverse signs of aging at the cellular level for the first time in a study published.
Adopting a diet rich in unprocessed foods combined with moderate exercise and stress management over five years increased the length of telomeres, the ends of chromosomes linked to aging, according to a study of 35 men published in the Lancet medical journal. No previous study has shown the effect of lifestyle changes on telomere length, the authors said.
The research, led by Dean Ornish, founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, adds to evidence of the benefits of healthy habits. Ornish's Lifestyle Heart Trial, published in 1998, showed a reversal of coronary heart disease over five years. Patients who receive 72 hours of training from medical professionals on Ornish's program for reversing heart disease have been reimbursed by Medicare since January 2011.
"So often, people think it has to be a new drug or laser, something really high-tech and expensive, to be powerful," Ornish said. "Our studies are showing that simple changes in our lifestyle have powerful impacts in ways that we can measure."
Ornish collaborated on the study with Elizabeth Blackburn, who shared the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2009 with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for research on the telomerase "immortality enzyme," which prevents telomeres from being shaved off.
He was inspired by Blackburn's research showing that the shortening of telomeres, and therefore aging, is accelerated by emotional stress such as that experienced by women who have parents with Alzheimer's disease or children with autism.
"My general experience is that things in biology go both ways," said Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. "If bad things make them shorter, maybe good things make them longer. So we had lunch together and I said, 'Why don't we find out?'"
The study included 35 men with low-risk prostate cancer enrolled between 2003 and 2007. Ten men adopted the lifestyle changes, while 25 underwent active surveillance as a control group.
The diet encouraged in the lifestyle change group was largely a whole foods, plant-based regimen of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, with few refined carbohydrates, Ornish said. It wasn't strictly vegetarian or vegan.
"Most people want to feel free, and as soon as you tell someone, don't ever eat this, always eat that, that's hard to sustain," Ornish said. "If you indulge yourself one day, just eat healthier the next."
In addition to changes in diet, the program included 30 minutes of walking six days a week; 60 minutes of daily stress management, mostly in the form of yoga and meditation; and a 60- minute support group session once a week.
Telomere length increased among the men in the lifestyle intervention group and decreased in the control group. As telomeres become shorter, cells age and die more quickly. The study authors said they are "rather like the tips of shoelaces that keep them from fraying."
The study is limited by the small size and by the fact that it wasn't randomized, which increases the possibility of unknown sources of bias, the authors said. The results suggest larger randomized studies in different populations would be useful, they said.
Ornish is the author of six best-selling books, including "Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease"; "Eat More, Weigh Less"; and "The Spectrum." He is a physician consultant to former President Bill Clinton and was appointed by President Barack Obama to the White House Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health.