The quest to reverse the human ageing process

Chromosome Image copyright SPL
Image caption Telomeres are the caps on the end of chromosomes

Can we reverse the human ageing process? A small pilot study gives tantalising hints that it might just be possible.

This is not about applying fancy skin creams or scientists with a formula or eternal youth.

Rather, the research suggests that comprehensive lifestyle changes - reducing stress, improving diet and moderate exercise - may increase the length of telomeres, the ends of chromosomes that control cell ageing.

That lifestyle is not exactly that of a warrior monk - but keep that analogy in mind for later where we will discuss the cult 70s TV series 'Kung Fu'.

Let's deal first with telomeres. These are stretches of DNA which protect our genetic code. They are often compared to the tips on shoelaces as they stop chromosomes from fraying and unravelling and keep the code stable.

Biological ageing

But each time a cell divides the telomeres get shorter, until the point that the ageing cell can no longer divide and it becomes inactive or 'senescent' and dies.

Telomere length is one indicator of biological age. Shorter telomeres are associated with a range of age-related diseases including cancer, heart disease and dementia.

Researchers at the University of California followed a group of 10 men with prostate cancer and asked them to eat a plant-based diet, do exercise, and manage their stress with techniques such as meditation and yoga. They also had group support sessions and lectures on diet and health from medical staff.

The men's telomere length was measured at the start and then five years later. It was compared with a control group of 25 men who were not asked to make any changes to their lifestyle.

Whereas the telomeres of the control group had shortened by an average of 3%, those of the healthy lifestyle group had lengthened by an average of 10%.

You can read more about the research, published in The Lancet Oncology here.

That is a striking result, but we should not read too much into it. This was a tiny study, and the authors are careful to stress that a much bigger trial would need to replicate the findings before knowing whether the results are significant.

What's more, the changes did not show any direct positive health effect - some of the men may have had longer telomeres but whether they will live longer is another matter.

Dr Lynne Cox, lecturer in Biochemistry, University of Oxford said: "There are two things to bear in mind here: firstly, short telomeres that occur as result of chronic stress are highly associated with poor health, and studies in mice have shown improved tissue health when telomeres are restored experimentally.

"Secondly, by contrast, globally increasing telomere length in cancer-prone mice actually predisposes to more aggressive cancers. The small increases in telomere length in this new human study are more likely to correlate with improved health than cancer risk, though it is too early to be definite."

A monk's life

Forget about the genetics: it is simpler to examine the lifestyle changes that may be beneficial for health. No-one doubts that regular exercise carries a host of health benefits - from reducing cancer risk to cutting the chance of diabetes, heart problems and stroke.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption David Carradine in the 70s TV series Kung Fu

The healthy lifestyle men in the study did at least 30 minutes walking six days a week.

The other measures included a largely vegetarian, low-fat diet, yoga, meditation, relaxation and increased social support.

So what sort of people lead a life like that? The Press Association put it like this:

"Living like a warrior monk...may have a transcendental effect on your cells, a study has shown. Lifestyle changes that bring to mind David Carradine's "grasshopper" character in the cult 1970s TV series 'Kung Fu' have the power to reverse ageing at a fundamental level, evidence suggests."

'You are not ready grasshopper'

I remember 'Kung Fu' with great affection. In every episode the David Carradine character would turn the other cheek until - usually in the last few minutes - there would be a breathtaking display of martial arts...or general awesomeness (as Jack Black would say in 'Kung Fu Panda').

I have no memory whatsoever of the character being an advert for a long and healthy life - he continually escaped death by the narrowest margin. But it did make me and other devotees yearn to be able to do Kung Fu. For about five minutes.

A healthy lifestyle is a bit like that for most people - a great idea in theory - but in reality quite hard to put into practice.

Putting aside random illness and accidents, we all know pretty much what is needed to maximise our chances of a reaching a ripe old age in good nick. But few have the determination to live like a warrior Shaolin monk, let alone adopt a low-stress, low fat existence punctuated by regular bouts moderate exercise.

As the blind Kung Fu teacher Master Po used to say to his pupil Caine (David Carradine), after he had failed some superhuman feat of endurance: "You are not ready grasshopper". And neither are most of us either for the rigours of martial arts or the discipline that might lead to a longer and healthier life.

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